There are several unusual things readers will notice immediately in John Grisham’s newest book, “The Whistler” (Doubleday, New York, 2016, 374 pages). The book features a female protagonist, only Grisham’s second ever (the first being 2014 “Gray Mountain” heroine Samantha Kofer). Aside from that, “The Whistler” tackles a bad judge, the first time that Grisham has discussed judicial misconduct head on. And it’s a “massive” case.”
“It is,” the protagonist says. “And far too big for us. We simply cannot investigate organized crime. Our world revolves around judges who’ve cracked up and done stupid things. They violate ethics, but rarely break laws. We’ve never seen a case like this.”
Meet Lacy Stoltz, an investigator with the Florida Board of Judicial Conduct. As she likes to point out, she’s not a cop—doesn’t carry a gun—but is a lawyer with subpoena power. Like many of Grisham’s lead characters, she’s hardworking, overworked and a solid civil servant with a relatively uneventful career. That’s until she and her partner Hugo Hatch meet Greg Myers (not his real name) who intends to file a complaint against a corrupt judge: the Honorable Claudia McDover of Brunswick County. “The question is simply this: Does the Board of Judicial Conduct want to investigate the most corrupt judge in the history of American jurisprudence?”
The tale Myers tells is of how McDover came out of nowhere and was bought as a judge to smoothen the approval of casinos for the Tappacola Indian tribe, and has been doing so for the last two decades. In the process, McDover has enriched herself, with swanky condos, hidden wealth and the use of corporate jets. Sounds like a career-making case, right?
The problem is that Myers isn’t forthcoming regarding the source of the information. He won’t give up the identity of the mole—the titular “Whistler,” a play on the term “whistleblower.” But as Lacy commences the tricky task of investigating a sitting judge, it turns out that there are far worse things involved in this case and merely being in the dark. “A dark little conspiracy had suddenly become far more dangerous,” Grisham writes, and soon terrible events threaten to keep Lacy off the case for good.
Grisham’s 31st novel for adults, “The Whistler” shows Grisham employing some of the familiar tricks he’d developed while becoming the master of the courtroom drama. His gambits of multiple identities, visits to death row, legal loopholes and colorful characters remain in play. Thus, “The Whistler” has its share of twists. But, as with his more recent work, he is also polishing his prose a bit more, so the paragraphs hold more detail, the conceits a bit more subtle.
But there is a strange, almost syncopated quality to the plot of “The Whistler.” The novel starts out sluggishly with loads of dense exposition then violently moves forward when actual violence breaks out. “The Whistler” seems more interesting in those parts, as it slows down again when Grisham breaks out the courtroom tactics. The twist regarding the “Whistler” isn’t really a twist at all.
Grisham is a known advocate against cases of legal injustice, and “The Whistler” is clearly his effort of addressing the possibility of a corrupt judiciary as well as the complex issues of Indian casinos in the United States. Fortunately, Grisham employs a compelling lead character, as Lacy is a winning creation, determined but down-to-earth.
“The Whistler” is a decidedly uneven book, with its share of familiar strengths and weaknesses, but still is a worthy reader-friendly to the yearly tradition of getting your John Grisham fix.
Available in hardcover from National Book Store.