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Review of 'The Summons' a novel by John Grisham.
The book is available in paperback, hardback and Kindle formats. I am reviewing the paperback version of the novel.
When the ageing Judge Atlee a powerful official who has towered over local law and politics for many years, summons his two sons, Ray and Forrest to his deathbed in Mississippi a mysterious chain of events begin.
Ray arrives at his father's home first and to his dismay, finds that his father has already died. Ray alerts the authorities and while waiting for them, he finds a large amount of cash hidden away in his father's study.
The money amounts to three million dollars in used notes. The money cannot be accounted for. Ray panics and although as a law professor, he knows that the money should be declared within his father's estate, he fears that the money may be the result of shady dealings on the judge's behalf, so he packs it into rubbish bags and hides it in his old childhood bedroom.
Ray's younger brother Forrest is a waster, a drug addict and alcoholic who has spent time in prison for drug dealing and has been in and out of rehab for most of his adult life. Ray is concerned that should Forrest get his hands on the money, he will squander it on drugs and probably end up dead of an overdose.
Ray removes the money from his father's home and hides it by storing it in a secure storage facility. His actions have grave repercussions as he finds himself being hounded by an unknown person who seems to know all about his ill-gotten gains.
The plot twists and turns through the events following Judge Atlee's death.
==My Thoughts On The Novel==
I have previously read several novels by John Grisham and have found them very good. Unfortunately, 'The Summons' is not one of the best I have come across. I felt the plot was rather weak in places, the outline of the story is good but the characters lacked depth and believability. I particularly disliked the character of Ray, who I thought was a little naïve considering he was supposed to be a professor of law.
I think the author has created a readable novel which is a little bit of a let down in comparison to his other books. That said, I did enjoy the book and although in my opinion it is not up to Grisham's usual standard, I would certainly read it again.
As thrillers go, this novel is not particularly thrilling and the outcome of the plot left me somewhat disappointed.
Thank you for reading my review of this novel.
©brittle1906 March 2012
N.B. My reviews may be found on other sites under the same user name.
I have been reading quite a few John Grisham books lately, in an effort to more or less mop up the ones that I haven't read. That's certainly why I read The Summons, which was published in 2002 and is Grisham's twelfth novel. One benefit of reading one off books by the same author back to back (at least for the purposes of reviews) is that it does allow you to directly compare quality. Unfortunately in this case it wasn't such an advantage in my quest to enjoy the book that I'm reading, but I'll get to all of that in good time.
The general plot of The Summons is very straightforward. The protagonist is Ray Atlee, a college law professor in his early forties. Ray's father is a well known yet aging and very ill Judge who has managed to push his sons away from him through his harsh and unforgiving attitude to life, and his brother is Forrest is a life long drug and alcohol addict on a road to self destruction. For obvious reasons Ray keeps a level of distance between himself and the rest of his immediate family, preferring instead to keep himself to himself and live through his comfortable yet entirely unremarkable life at as slow a pace as possible.
However, things are never as straightforward as that in a Grisham novel, and one Spring afternoon Ray receives a summons from Judge Atlee to return home to discuss the details of the family estate. The estate has a low value with very few assets as the Judge gave heavily to charities, but honouring his father's wishes Ray heads back home. However, the meeting never takes place, as on Ray's arrival at the family home he finds that his father has already passed away.
But in going through the family home for the purposes of probate, Ray makes a startling discovery of over three million dollars in cash stashed in the Judge's office. This is more money than the Judge could have earned in his lifetime, and certainly more than he could have obtained honourably. What follows are Ray's attempts to trace the source of the money and uncover his father's secrets, but he's doing so against the clock. Someone else knows about the money, and that person will do anything to get it back.
Now certainly that plot summary sounds like a Grisham novel, and also sounds like a pretty good premise for a thriller. A little unremarkable perhaps, but promising nonetheless. At least I thought so. Unfortunately The Summons doesn't come close to living up to this glimmer of promise, and personally I consider it to be the worst Grisham novel that I have read by some distance.
Why? Well there are a couple of reasons for this damning indictment. The first is that the book is far too slow to gather pace. The moment where the money is discovered is reasonably hard hitting, but rather than running with this the book then settles back into mundane conversations and interactions that have nothing to do with the money. Yes, Ray often thinks about it and considers what to do, but this indecisiveness does nothing to advance the plot, and is just laced in between conversations that, in the grand scheme of things, mean very little.
Its not that the conversations are bad in themselves, or that the other characters involved are dull. In fact quite to the contrary. The conversations at times are well laid out and entertaining and the characters, whilst perhaps a little clichéd for a Grisham novel, are solid enough. It's just that because Ray tells no one of his predicament these characters are entirely detached from the main plotline as regards the money, and as such the conversations are pointless and just serve to draw attention away from the mystery surrounding the money.
Even when the realisation hits that someone else is after the money, it just takes so long for anything meaningful to happen. There are set pieces that I assume are intended to build the tension and heighten the anxiety, but unfortunately they do neither because they are wedged between lengthy gaps where Ray converses with other characters or concentrates on the money rather than the mysterious person chasing him. In fact, he seems to shift between being scared of his pursuer and doing things with the money, to the extent where he will bolt at the first sign of trouble, and then immediately calm down and almost assume that no one is chasing him anymore, only to be scared by the next intimidating and mysterious act. This creates a cycle that quickly becomes tiresome. Admittedly the set pieces where he is intimidated are often not bad in their own right, but because the protagonist seems to move on so quickly and concentrate on something else, it just kills any sense of atmosphere that the book could otherwise generate.
By the time Ray made any really serious efforts to discover the identity of the person chasing him I had, unfortunately, largely lost interest. And even then the path by which he tries to discover the identity is so detached from the rest of the book that it is not satisfying in the slightest. The clue that leads him on the path comes entirely out of left field, and in the grand scheme of things just doesn't lead anywhere interesting. Especially when you know what Grisham is capable in his other books. There is a twist, which admittedly I only fleetingly expected, but it too was weak and felt tacked on to the end of the plot, doing nothing to salvage that had long since bored me for its lack of focus and coherence.
Overall this is a book that I really am struggling to recommend even to the Grisham faithful. I suppose if you are a fan of his novels and have read most of the others, then this is a book that will at least be mildly readable. Certainly there are elements that are enjoyable. It's just that it feels like a by the numbers Grisham novel with no real thought or coherence put into the plot. There are some nice nods and references to his previous novels that fans will pick up on, but these can hardly justify taking the time to read a book that is simply well below the standard that we have come to expect from Grisham. I'm sure those who enjoy his novels will push on regardless and read this through, as indeed I did, but if you don't count yourself in that group I honestly wouldn't bother.
It's amazing how an ending can colour a person's view on something. As a film fan that likes to review (on here of course) I have found that many films end with a bang just so that the last thing a person remembers is the exciting set piece and they forget the boring hour before it. The same happens in books and I have found that crime fiction in particular likes to end on a bang. However, there is a flip side to a book or film ending on a high and that is when they end on a low. How many times have you seen a film only to be let down by a drab or confusing ending. Perhaps the rest of the book you were reading was ok, only for it all to be undermined by poor editing or an author's strange flight of fancy. Or maybe like in the case of John Grisham's 'The Summons' the ending just makes the books feel a bit meh.
Ray Atlee receives a letter from his father Judge Atlee to return to his home town so that they can discuss the Judge's will. On arriving, Ray is in for more than one big surprise, not only does he find his father dead, but also over $3 million in unmarked bills hidden in the house. What is Ray going to do? Before spending any of the money he decides to investigate where it came from. Will he be able to keep the money secret from his addict brother and does someone already know? It seems that perhaps someone does as his house if broken into and letters are left on his car windshield. Ray has to decide whether he is happy in his current life style or whether to keep the cash. $3 million is a lot of money to forget about.
As hard as I tried to like 'The Summons' I could not bring myself to think of it more than just an average read. For the first third of the book you feel that you are in the usual Grisham world of Deep South law firms and people eating grits. However, the book is soon turned on its head with great impact when Ray stumbles across the money and the body. All of a sudden you have a book filled with potential for action and intrigue and for a short while this happens. The middle third is a great book with Ray being chased by an unknown assailant whilst trying to discover where the money came from without telling anyone that he has it. The conflict that goes on in Ray's head is good as he is a good man that starts off honestly trying to uncover the truth only for the pull of money to corrupt.
It is the final third of the book that the narrative starts to unravel. Firstly, you get a little bored with the format as you start to realise that this is really all that is going to happen. I noticed this sensation with Grisham's other book 'The Broker'. He seems to create good ideas with plenty of wide potential only to make a linear book that does not go anywhere. The conclusion itself is also a let down because it's too obvious and to be honest you just do not care anymore. This is a real shame as for the first 150 pages I was really enjoying the book and the mystery gripped me.
The final area that I had misgiving about was the usual Grisham attitude to the South. He was born and raised there and seems to view the place with rose tinted glasses. He even looks back on segregation with a soft lens. In books like 'A Time to Kill' this viewpoint works really well, here it just seems a little false as no one wants to mention the elephant in the corner (who just happens to be black).
By the way that I have criticised this book you would assume that I hated it, but this is far from the case. The character of Ray Atlee is a compassionate one and interesting to read about. Grisham also writes a good narrative for the first two thirds of the books by starting of with his usual memoirs style only to turn it on its head early on. If the quality of the first 100 pages had continued onto the finish then 'the Summons' would have been one of the better works by the author. Unfortunately, this was not the case as not only did the same chase narrative go on for too long, but when it finally ended it was all a little unimpressive. With lots of minor errors present, all the good characterisation is undermined making the book feel average. I would advise only Grisham die hards to read this and beginners to start with the genuinely excellent 'A Time to Kill'.
Author: John Grisham
Price: amazon uk - £4.19
play.com - £5.49
If you have ever read any John Grisham books, you probably know that they generally involve lawyers, the law or courtrooms, and I have read some reviews which criticise this emphasis, and say there should be more emphasis on the characters and their lives away from their work. Well I can say, 'The Summons' will please both camps, as it is about a lawyer and his family. Again, the story is based in the south, where the family in question originate from a place called Clanton in Mississippi, which is where is excellent novel, and later film 'Time To Kill' was based. At nearly 400 pages long in the paperback version, it is a standard Grisham novel size wise, but has been criticised by fans and the media alike, and many claim it is his worst novel to date. Published in 2002, it is one of the more recent releases, and the main character is a divorced law professor called Ray Atlee. All of his life, Ray has been overshadowed and intimidated by his father, the affluent Reuben V Atlee, who was a well respected and feared Judge, until he was voted out of office after refusing to campaign for votes. The story starts when Ray receives an impersonal letter from his father to attend a meeting about his estate the following weekend. Ray knows his father is dying, so the request does not really come as a surprise, but as his father had let his house deteriorate into a dreadful state, Ray doubted there would be much to discuss, and as the Atlee name looked like it would end with Ray and Forrest (his younger and more troublesome brother), there was certainly no family other than themselves to consider. The beginning of the book does take a chapter or so to get into it, but the background setting is 100% relevant to what will follow. As I have mentioned, Ray is not an only child, he has a wayward brother called Forrest, who has been estranged from his father for many years, due to his excessive drinking and drug taking. Forrest and Ray are not close,
but Ray feels that he should make contact with his brother to see if he has been summoned, and finds his brother claiming to be clean, but uninterested in making his peace with his dying father. Ray decides to go to the meeting with his father alone, however it does not go as planned, as when he arrives, he father is already dead, and Ray is left to deal with the funeral and matters of the estate on his own, which he plans to do quickly and then return home, that is until he finds over $100,000 in boxes in a cupboard he is cleaning out. It is clear that his father still influences Ray's life even after his death. Ray has to make choices, and decide whether his morals can outweigh his desire to take the money and run. First of all though, he finds himself embroiled in a hunt to find out who and where the money actually came from. He cannot enjoy the money when he has a nagging doubt in his mind that the judge gained it illegally, and that doubt is confirmed when threats are made on Ray's life, and he starts to wonder will he ever be able to return to the life he had before the death of his father. It is here the story gets really gritty, and rather than spoil it for you, my description of the main plot will stop here for fear that I prevent you enjoying the book as much as I did, and the ending is a complete surprise to everyone I know who has read the book. The sub plots are what really make this story gripping. Ray's divorce from wife Vicky was not as simple as first thought. She left him for an older, less attractive man called Lew The Liquidator, who had more money than Ray could ever dream of, and they now had children together, which is something Ray has never managed to come to terms with. He was now living the life of a single man, but rather than enjoying it, he was starting to see his single status as a burden, and when Kaley, one of his older students makes a play for him, he is not certain how to deal with it, or whether he
should act upon it, and this questions raises itself throughout the book. Ray's relationship with Forrest is examined, and there are times when you think they genuinely could be close, only for one or both of them to act appaulingly, and ruin any chance of a real reconciliation. The book kept me intrigued throughout, and I really enjoyed the journey it took me on. John Grisham has a nice easy style to his writing, and he happily takes you in one direction, and having you virtually salivating as to what will be on the next page, only to do an about turn and take you in the opposite direction, leaving you slightly puzzled, but quite excited as to what will follow. It asks you to think, but does not challenge you to work hard in order to appreciate the story. I have to strongly disagree with the poor reviews this book received, as I have enjoyed it as much as many of his other novels, and I am truly at a loss to understand why so many people disliked this.
If I was asked my favourite author I would probably say John Grisham without thinking but as time goes on it is harder and harder to justify saying that. To be honest I hadn't realised how far his standards had slipped until I looked at the list of other books and realised that it was a long time since I had really enjoyed one of them and that his best work was in his first half dozen releases. The latest offering "The Summons" gave me some hope as it was back to being what he writes about best. Grisham takes us back to the scene of his first novel, "A Time to Kill" which is Clanton, Mississippi. The story is based upon a dying Judge who summons both his sons to meet him to discuss his last will. The story is told through the eyes of the eldest son Ray Atlee, he is a lecturer at a university and in many ways a respectable character. His younger brother Forest is a drug and drink addict who spends his whole time between counting how long it has last been since his last transgression and spending his time in rehab. This is definitely not a close family and when the judge summons his two sons to visit him one last time to sort out his last will and testament it is more of a business arrangement than a family gathering. Ray arrives at the house first to find the lifeless body of his father; upon a further examination of the house Ray discovers $3m in used banknotes. Torn between where the money came from and what he should do with it Ray quickly becomes a character in conflict with himself. What should he do with the money? Where did it come from? Who else knows about it? Would sharing it with Forest be a catalyst to his inevitable demise? Ray is very much the good guy in this book, fighting with his conscience and morals throughout. He appears to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Grisham expertly describes this character, to the point where you start to feel paranoid for him. Unfortunately th
is one of only a few highlights in the book. This is slow paced Grisham at his best. In many ways it was a lot like his previous and best novel, "The Partner". However, at times things were a little too slow and there were no sub plots, merely distractions. The problem is that The Partner tied up all the leads after giving you enough clues and had an excellent twist. Sadly this story does neither. The story is painfully predictable. When you introduce so few characters there is little in the way of possible endings and the ending to this book was so blatantly obvious that it was embarrassing to read. The supposed twist was the only possible outcome I could think of. I think that this would have been a reasonable story as part of a short story collection but it contains too much padding to be considered a novel. This book was a massive disappointment. Having to produce a book a year cannot be easy. However, this time Grisham had two years to produce this book as "A Painted House" was released last year and it had already been written the year before. With previous Grisham novels I have felt disappointed by the ending, sometimes assuming that he was writing to a deadline. This book just left a feeling of disbelief at the end! It is now the Grisham name that sells books and not the content. I cannot help but feel that if this was a first time book by an unknown author that it would not have been published. I will still buy his books on the day of release but I cannot help but feel that it is merely through a sense of loyalty rather than because of the expectation of a great story.
This is a tale of the consequences that befall a man faced with an overpowering temptation. Ray Atlee is thrown an ethical curve which he could not possibly be prepared to handle. And despite his conviction that he's doing the right thing for the right reasons, it's inevitable that his flimsy rationale will fall apart, disaster soon to follow.