A John Grisham mystery should read like a Rubik’s Cube. Once you start turning pages and twisting through its scrambled plotlines, you shouldn?t be able to put it down.
The Summons, frankly, is more like that puzzle where you try to get the BBs into the bear’s eyes. It’s not necessarily a bad book– indeed, in some ways Grisham has never been a better-behaved writer — but ultimately it’s a mystery in which the most shocking surprise turns out to be how few shocking surprises are in it. It is, in short, not all that tough to put down.
The setup is certainly promising: Ray Atlee, a recently divorced 43-year-old University of Virginia law professor, receives a letter from his semi-estranged and dying father, a small-town judge with a reputation for being as incorruptible as he is cranky, summoning him to the ancestral ramshackle in Mississippi for a final talking-to. But when Ray arrives — a few hours ahead of his no-good drug-addicted younger brother, Forrest, who has also received a summons — he finds Dad dead on the sofa. He also finds $3 million stuffed in the cabinets.
Where’d the money come from? How exactly did Judge Atlee die? Who are the thugs chasing Ray across the South after he bolts from his father’s funeral with the cash stashed in the trunk of his sports car? All will be revealed in the end. Actually, some of it can be figured out well before the end, which is one of the book?s big problems, but never mind. The most important question in ”The Summons” is one Grisham never gets around to answering: Why should readers care about any of the above?
Grisham tries to make his hero likable — why else would he have Ray’s gold-digging ex-wife leave him for a pudgy local millionaire known as the Liquidator? — but it’s tough whipping up much sympathy. For one thing, Ray doesn’t need or even want $3 million; he makes more than enough teaching law to afford flying lessons and a nifty new Audi TT Roadster. And although it’s sort of sweet the way he’s still stuck on his ex (”A half a billion dollars was looking good on her,” he decides after spying her climbing out of the Liquidator’s private jet at the airport), he isn’t starved for affection. In fact, he brushes off advances from beautiful young law students because sleeping with them would be inappropriate. (Even the ones who are graduating in two weeks, the twerp.)
There aren’t many other characters worth rooting for in ”The Summons” — or even worth remembering — which is odd considering how much progress Grisham has made as a writer in other areas. His recent forays into literary novels — ”A Painted House” and ”Skipping Christmas” — have given his once hunt-and-peck prose a much more artful grace. ”The red and yellow maples that once lined the street had died of some unknown disease,” he writes, getting downright descriptive while visiting Judge Atlee’s decaying Mississippi pile. ”Four huge oaks shaded the front lawn. They shed leaves by the ton, far too many for anyone to rake and gather. And at least twice a year the oaks would lose a branch that would fall and crash somewhere onto the house, where it might or might not get removed.” If he can write like that about a house, there’s no reason he can’t do better with people.
But, of course, Grisham’s books aren’t really supposed to be about people: They’re supposed to be about turning pages, about hooking the reader with seemingly unsolvable riddles and then delivering delicious, didn’t-see-it-coming solutions. They’re supposed to be Rubik’s Cubes.
What we’ve got here, unfortunately, is a cube with too few colors.