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Onyx reviews: The Summons by John Grisham

After a vacation from legal thrillers, and with Skipping Christmas still topping bestseller lists, John Grisham returns to familiar ground with The Summons. Back to lawyers and fictional Clanton, Mississippi, where his first novel, A Time to Kill, was set.

Grisham's book contract specifies legal thrillers, so the major characters in The Summons are all lawyers and judges. However, with a little tweaking, the story could easily have been adapted to remove most legal professionals. This isn't a bad thing—it symbolizes the universality of this tale.

While the title sounds like a legal document, the summons is actually a letter Ray Atlee receives from his dying father, Judge Reuben Atlee, who has reigned over Clanton for decades. Strong-willed and old-fashioned, the judge has never forgiven his two sons for not joining him in a law practice. Ray teaches law in Virginia; his younger brother Forrest has spent his life in and out of rehab.

Ray and Forrest are directed to appear at the judge's home to discuss the distribution of his estate. Judge Atlee is dying of cancer, but he still commands respect and demands obedience from his community and his children. Ray drives to Clanton, arriving to find his father dead in his study, either from the cancer or from an overdose from his self-administered morphine pack.

While waiting for his habitually late brother, Ray discovers stacks of cash in a cabinet. Over three million dollars. Judge Atlee didn't make that much money in his lifetime. Ray decides to hide his discovery from his brother and from the estate until he can figure out where it came from.

Ray, named executor of the estate, takes the money back to Virginia where he hides it in his apartment and then in a series of rental facilities. Paranoia besets him. While traveling back to Clanton for probate with millions of dollars in the trunk of his luxury sports car, he stays awake at night to watch over the parking lot. He eats in restaurants where he can sit close to the window to keep an eye on his car.

Anonymous letters and break-ins at his apartment tell him that someone else knows about the money. Without understanding where it came from, though, he has no hope of figuring out who is after him.

The Summons explores Ray's reaction to the pressure caused by his discovery. Even before his father's death, he was in a transitional state. His wife had abandoned him for a "better deal." One of his students has designs on him—but he's not the only faculty member she's pursuing. His father's death pushes him even further off tilt—he's forced to confront his regret about not doing more to improve their relationship. Concealing what he found in his father's den knocks him completely off balance.

Grisham uses Ray's dilemma as a tool to explore relationships with distant parents, the growing infiltration of casinos into Mississippi, and lawyers who gather clients affected by dangerous prescription drugs (shades of Fen-phen). Ray is simultaneously on the hunt and being pursued. Digging into his father's life for clues, he learns more about a man he didn't know very well while trying to keep one step ahead of whoever is after the money.

The pace continually accelerates as Ray manages several crises simultaneously—like a circus plate balancer—until the mystery is resolved. However, don't look for a tidy ending—life doesn't come with neat resolutions to its problems and Grisham uses The Summons to make that point.

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