I was looking for a page-turner, and, for its opening chapters, The Summons by John Grisham supplied that.
Ray Atlee, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia, gets a letter addressed to him and his younger brother Forrest from their father. It reads:
Please make arrangements to appear in my study on Sunday, May 7, at 5 p.m., to discuss the administration of my estate. Sincerely, Rueben V. Atlee
It’s a letter that gives an immediate insight into the relationship — and lack of one — that Ray has had up until now with his father, a retired judge who, until being unseated in an election nine years earlier, had been a major figure in Ford County, Mississippi. Forrest, a wastrel, lifelong addict, has had an even more tortuous connection with the Judge.
Ray knows that his 79-year-old father is dying of cancer so he is shaken but not completely surprised when he arrives at the family home for the appointment to find his father dead with a packet of morphine nearby.
Neat packets of hundred-dollar bills
What does stun him, though, is his discovery in dozens of boxes in cabinets in the Judge’s study containing $3,118,000 in neat packets of hundred-dollar bills.
Ray doesn’t want to tell anyone about the money until he knows where it came from. It’s not listed in the judge’s meticulous records of penny ante spending and a penny ante savings account. Did the Judge do something wrong to get the money? Would his reputation be stained if the presence of the money were made public?
Ray doesn’t want to tell Forrest because it’s clear to him that his brother would want half of the money and then would use his half to buy enough booze and drugs to quickly kill himself.
But, on that first night after finding his father’s body, when Ray is staying in the family home, he hears someone trying to break in and scares the intruder away.
So Ray isn’t the only one who knows about the money.
Seemingly endless drives
Thus begins, at this point, the bulk of the book. And it’s something of a bore.
I’ve never read a John Grisham book before although I’ve seen — and liked — several movies that were made from his novels. From the movies, I expected a Grisham novel to be tight and tense, filled with threats and twists.
But most of The Summons is taken up with seemingly endless drives that Ray makes to move the money — in three large garbage bags — from one place to another. Sometimes he moves the money into cardboard boxes, and sometimes into airtight, fireproof metal boxes. But the cash always finds a way to get back into the garbage bags and into the trunk of Ray’s Audi.
Even when he finds places to cache the dough, he can’t help himself from going back again and again to look at it. This, despite the not-so-subtle threats that he’s getting by mail and break-ins to his apartment.
When Ray isn’t driving the money around in his Audi or watching his money-packed car from the window of some restaurant (that, it seems, always has greasy food), he’s trying to figure out if it’s real or counterfeit, and he’s going to casinos and searching through files to figure out how the Judge got it.
Convoluted and more convoluted
The pace is plodding. The threats against Ray don’t seem very threatening. His efforts to keep his eyes on the money and find sideways means to learn its origin come across as overly convoluted.
And then he learns of that origin in a conversation with a guy who has little reason, it would seem, to talk to him at all. There’s no real build up. It just happens.
And then he faces a plot twist at the end that struck me at least as even more convoluted than everything that had gone before.
Maybe the point of the book was to give Grisham a forum for blasting the herds of lawyers who latch onto groups of people who have suffered from asbestos, tobacco or the side effects of new drugs and use them to squeeze huge settlements out of major corporations. The Summons told me over and over again in many ways that these attorneys are akin to vultures.
Or maybe it was to give Grisham a forum for writing about flying. My guess, based on the book, is that he likes to fly planes. But it all seemed a bit beside the point to me.
Best to worst
After I started The Summons but before I was far into it, I wondered how it fit in with other Grisham novels so I looked online and found several rankings of the best to worst of his three dozen books.
In those lists, The Summons always ended up right in the middle, not one of his best but not one of his worst.
I have no desire to have anything to do with any of the books that are worse than The Summons.
Patrick T. Reardon