The Whistler, the latest from John Grisham, continues the former lawyer’s preoccupation with tackling the social injustices of the lower class, though you’d be hardpressed to guess just what might be bothering Mr. Grisham this time around. Here he serves up what can only be called a procedural thriller, one detailing the investigation of a corrupt judge by way of a massive casino skimming scheme in the highly corruptible state of Florida.
Which is a shame as, taken separately, all the ingredients for another great Grisham yarn are present: a corrupt judge, an innocent man on death row, and plenty of legal drama.
This far into the game, I’m not convinced Grisham is even aware how broadly stereotypical his characters can seem, drawn as though physical characteristics should be the main determinator of their social condition. Heroes and villains come into the picture, with all the requisite privileges and disadvantages you’d imagine. While this predictability has currency with a certain subset of his readers, imposing such limitations on them upfront can make an otherwise innocuous read frustratingly preachy, and even (sometimes) a little offensive.
Meet our heroine, Lacy Stoltz: a 36-year old investigator with nearly a decade’s experience with Florida’s Board on Judicial Conduct (BJC), which investigates potential corruption on judges on the bench. She’s settled into a comfortable partnership with Hugo Hatch, a former college athlete phenom who overcame a crippling injury to become a capable lawyer, though he’s struggling financially to keep his wife and considerable brood afloat. That Lacy is a young white woman and Hatch a middle aged black man add some dynamic to the relationship, but only to those seeking comfort in their prejudices manifested through fiction.
The BJC is approached by Greg Myers, a disgraced Florida lawyer who spent a few years behind bars for real estate fraud, was himself a whistleblower, and hopes to repair his legal standing while living on a small yacht with his sweetheart. He offers them a case that would be a major step up from the drunkards and other minor offenses they usually see coming through.
Myers hands them what seems like a dream case: “the most corrupt judge in the history of American jurisprudence”, he calls the Honorable Claudia McDover, a divorcee who turned tragedy into triumph and whose seventeen years on the bench left her with an impeccable record, acclaim from peers, and, if Myers’ incredible tale can be believed, amassing cartoonish stockpiles of jewels and goblets, condos, and chartering private jets for exclusive shopping trips across the globe. It’s a nice life, if you can steal it.
Judge McDover is just one piece of a corruption pie that extends to the Treasure Key Casino, which grosses millions, pays no taxes, and goes unregulated by the state. This makes for an awfully tempting cookie jar for the right people. The Coast Mafia, i.e. Catfish Mafia, with the help of McDover, conspired with corrupt tribal chiefs to skim millions off profits from the Tappacola tribe (i.e. “the Indians”), a small tribe of Native Americans who should be the real beneficiaries from the casino’s spoils.
Even more mysterious is that Myers isn’t actually the whistleblower, but instead a surrogate of whoever they may be (“You’re assuming it’s a male”, he chafes the investigators). They’ve got to trust him completely, as the stakes for his client couldn’t possibly be more dire. Making things even more dire is one Junior Mace, a Tappacola man on death row for fifteen years after being convicted for killing his wife and her alleged lover, Son Razko, one of the tribe’s few opponents of the casino. With Son out of the way the were little resistance from other members and it wasn’t long before the casino was constructed and collecting millions.
At the center of the conspiracy is Vonn Dubose, a descendant from the original gangsters whose identify is so secretive he may as well not even exist. Myer’s alleges both Dubose and McDover would meet in private each month: briefcases full of cash and pleasantries exchanged, nefarious deals made, with all parties making out like the bandits they were.
Of course, Lacy and Hugo are scrupulous, and the two sojourn to the Florida Panhandle to find out just what the heck is going on, and if they even have a case. This should be the opening for another rousing and thrilling Grisham yarn, one that blends legal thriller with a Hollywood-ready whodunnit caper. And yet, even forgiving the stilted prose and meandering narrative, there’s no sympathetic character worth latching onto. As a protagonist, Lucy feels entirely constructed for purpose and sterile. A mid-book attempt at inter-agency romance feels tacked on and artificial, serving only to heighten the lack of personality in an otherwise surprisingly large cast.
The sole standout is Lacy’s older brother, Gunther Stoltz, the gun-toting, plane-flying braggart who loves his little sister and fiercely defends her, much to the consternation of unlucky nurses and anyone in his path. Described as “either one of the top ten commercial property developers in Atlanta or one of the five real estate swingers most likely headed for bankruptcy.” Crass, loud, and utterly obnoxious, he’s the single best thing about The Whistler, leaving you wondering “who’s going to play him in the movie…?”
Part of this limitation is baked into the underlying scenario; Lacy and her peers aren’t cops, or even the FBI. They’re “lawyers with subpoenas,” she reminds us. Apart from a brutal automotive crash, which leaves one major character dead and another badly injured, there’s a palatable lack of physical action moving us from one scene to the next. Events play out like a lukewarm Goodfellas clone as they’re presented in a languid, almost documentary style. Even the big reveal of who the mysterious ‘whistleblower’ is presented like an autopsy report.
To be fair, there’s great fun in watching as Grisham lays out the trail of corruption in layman’s terms, even if practically everything is telegraphed pages beforehand. So much of The Whistler plays out like a rough draft I’m wondering if the concept alone was pretext enough to create little more than a working draft of a larger, better story. Much has been made of Grisham’s latter-day campaign for social awareness, a noble endeavor in his world of sausage-factory fiction, though his work has never wanted for exposing hypocrisy and injustices in the legal profession. Many of his books combine rousing fiction with activism, but a noticeable sense of imbalance in his recent output threatens to upend the goodwill his easy and colloquial style has engendered.
It’s difficult to gauge just what Grisham is lambasting against here, especially when a major plot point is left entirely unresolved or even addressed, even in the expansive epilogue. Indeed, in the wake of The Whistler’s publicity tour the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) has publicly blasted the author for what they call misrepresentations of their establishment, “recklessly and inexcusably” so.
While by no means the career-low embarrassment of 2014’s Gray Mountain, The Whistler is lesser Grisham; the story feels rushed, unresolved plot points abound, and, ironically for a book about a corrupt casino, very little at stake. The passion and sense of injustice so often marking Grisham’s best works is muted here by milquetoast characters and lethargic pacing. Still, there’s entertainment here, but the book is still a completely forgettable read.