Before you start reading any John Grisham legal thriller, you more or less know what you’re going to get.
The story is bound to feature a scrappy Southern lawyer who takes on a vast criminal conspiracy in what will prove to be the biggest and most dangerous case of his career.
That said, the best-selling author (who has well over 275 million copies of his books in print) invariably finds a way to keep the familiar formula fresh.
Grisham’s latest, “The Whistler,” introduces readers to a couple of legal-eagle protagonists, Lacy Stoltz and Hugo Hatch of the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct.
They’re mismatched best friends who work for an unheralded and understaffed state agency that investigates complaints against judges. Lacy and Hugo aren’t detectives – they don’t carry guns, just subpoenas – but they do some big-time sleuthing in “The Whistler.”
Few of the matters they handle ever amount to much. There’s a lot of judicial incompetence, a bit of small-time graft and the occasional sour-grapes complaint that wastes everyone’s time.
But in this instance, an anonymous whistleblower has come forward, using an ex-con lawyer as an intermediary, with a daunting conspiracy story about an Indian casino in the Florida Panhandle, a ruthless criminal syndicate that’s secretly skimming profits and a veteran circuit court judge who’s letting it happen.
This dirty judge, according to the complaint, has pocketed more payola in her 17 years on the bench than all other crooked judges combined. And we’re not talking just Florida judges. We’re talking all of the bad judges in the entire country.
This judge, Lacy and Hugo are told, has been a party to “bribery, extortion, intimidation, rigged trials, at least two murders and … a man rotting away on death row who was framed.”
It is the judge angle where Grisham, a perennial best-selling author since “The Firm” put him on the map in 1991, has worked some of his storytelling magic.
By focusing on the sins of the judge, Grisham has given an intriguing twist to what could have been a run-of-the-mill conspiracy thriller.
For example, the investigation is launched not out of concern that an innocent man has been framed for a double murder, but merely because the Whistler selfishly hopes to pocket a big payday under the Florida Whistleblower Statute.
As for our heroes, they aren’t the least bit interested in solving decade-old crimes or in catching the puppet-master leader of the so-called Catfish Mafia. They just want to get the goods on the Honorable Claudia McDover of Brunswick County, who’s getting rich while she perverts the legal system.
Once the investigators take the case, however, they quickly get drawn into the larger conspiracy. They are repeatedly warned that they’re putting their lives in danger by poking around the casino and questioning disgruntled members of the Tappacola tribe.
Crime boss Vonn Dubose, they are told, doesn’t like snoops. And sure enough, Lacy soon gets a wake-up call when a would-be killer puts her in the hospital.
It’s a roller-coaster ride of legal twists and dangerous double crosses after that.
Not sure how Grisham pulls it off time and again – except for the fact that, as a former Mississippi attorney who practiced law in the 1980s, he knows the territory.
On top of that – and this is probably Grisham’s greatest asset as a storyteller – he has been blessed with a runaway imagination.
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