Reviewed by Ian Lipke
John Grisham’s latest book The Whistler focuses on the investigation of a corrupt judge by the Board on Judicial Conduct. As expected, such a Board does not exist. However Florida has a Judicial Qualifications Commission that does a similar job. An officer of the Board Lacy Stolz and her partner Hugo Hatch are alerted to alleged corrupt practices that are being practised by a certain Judge Claudia McDover.
At no stage is there ever any doubt that the judge is evil. The charge that her association with master criminal Vonn Dubose is never contested. Grisham’s characters differ from the merely gullible as in Clyde Westbay to the corrupt Phyllis Turban and from there to the thoroughly evil Delgado. That Vonn Dubose is ultimately responsible for the graft, the threats to various characters with the intention to generate fear, and the many murders and crippling injuries his hired thugs mete out, is never in dispute. What’s more the suspense in the story-telling is created by the Grisham of old, and is as frightening as it has ever been. However, I dispute that this is an “electrifying new thriller” written by “the best thriller writer alive” as the hyperbole on the cover would have us believe.
The book is a painstaking account of the investigation into a hint of corruption floating in the air of the Board on Judicial Conduct. It details the work of two investigators who take the time to listen to a man who will not be named initially, but who advises that he is working on behalf of a whistle-blower who will not be identified. It’s a case of converting rumour into belief and that into evidence.
The interest in the book is not so much in thriller writing as it is in building something solid from opinion and fear. Each step must follow its predecessor in a strictly logical fashion. Rumour, once the Board of Judicial Review determines it should be investigated, becomes fact, each discrete from the others, and each generating more indications of skulduggery farther ahead. This is where Grisham’s greatest strength lies – in his ability to build a cogent argument on cajolery, subterfuge and individual facts. Grisham is further adept in laying out calls to action to a reluctant FBI agency as he demonstrates in this book.
I consider this book to be an intellectual tour de force, intended to test an armchair detective’s wits with an impressive conglomeration of facts crying out for remembrance and subliminally building into a puzzle whose solution is plain only after the bits and pieces have become a coherent whole. Grisham is devastating in leading his readers through this maze.
So much for the content. His characterisation requires mention too. There are the ‘will-of-the-wisp characters like Cooley and Myers who keep their paths so hidden that they are only with difficulty acknowledged as existing. The descent of Judge Claudia McDover is from petty “I wish for” behaviours to involvement in deep crime. While she is an almost fully-fleshed out character, her friend Phyllis is less substantial. This is the pattern in this book viz semi-reveal your characters and allow the reader to put meat on them. The most clear of all the characters in this book is Edgar Killebrew, a defence lawyer who makes his appearance when the judge is asked to supply answers to certain allegations but who rarely surfaces after that. While he is drawn carefully and fully on page 179, the other character most like him is Lacy Stolz’s brother Gunther. His reason for being seems to be as a protector of Lacy after she is attacked and her partner killed. His delight in upsetting nurses and doctors makes fine reading, although after he has left, the reader wonders what he was really doing there in the first place.
Lacy seems an honest, well-practised servant of the law…but she has her faults. She gossips, and she wants to develop a relationship with FBI agent Allie Pacheca. At one point she appears to place the whole operation in jeopardy by her confiding in the agent, and her boss has to stand in and reprimand her. Grisham develops an eerie feeling in the reader that she is clearing the way for an attack by criminals on the whistle-blower, but this plays its way out in a lower register.
The Whistler is a thoroughly modern crime story with all the intellectual demand any reader would hope for. It is well worth a thorough reading.
by John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton