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'The Whistler,' John Grisham's 29th novel, offers mostly empty calories

The narrative verve Grisham fans usually enjoy seems lacking in 'The Whistler.'

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    The Whistler
    By John Grisham
    Doubleday
    384 pp.
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As an author, John Grisham is a reliable bestseller. Unfortunately, Grisham's books are not always as reliable as his reputation. His 29th novel, The Whistler, falls into the category of a disappointment.

A tale of judicial corruption set in Florida, Grisham’s latest offers thrills and chases, but also feels workmanlike. Sure, it will still get you through a plane ride or two, but “The Whistler” packs a lot of empty calories.

Calories along the lines of, “As he faced the three of them, his chair suddenly felt like a hot seat,” and, “For a moment there was no air to breathe.” Characters “slug” a lot of coffee and people knock on doors at appointed hours “like clockwork.”

A character carries out surveillance in this contemporary thriller with “his face hidden behind a newspaper,” evoking Hitchcock-era techniques in the age of Instagram.

Granted, Grisham never claimed to be a literary stylist, but his relentless plotting and narrative verve have often lifted his legal thrillers and made them memorable. Characters such as Mitch McDeere in “The Firm” and Darby Shaw in “The Pelican Brief,” as well as small-town Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance in “A Time to Kill” and “Sycamore Row,” among others, stayed with readers beyond the last page.

“The Whistler” centers on a straightforward premise. A Florida judge is involved in a casino kickback conspiracy with a shadowy mafia kingpin.

Enter a formerly disbarred lawyer, who, in his rehabilitated zeal, has one unnamed client. This lawyer leads a Jimmy Buffett-style vagabond existence, floating around the Atlantic Ocean on his boat and evading his enemies.

The lawyer, through his lone client, has circumstantial evidence pointing to the judge’s skimming scheme. Both the lawyer and his client are eyeing the financial rewards likely to follow seizure of the judge’s illegal assets.

Suspicious of the FBI, the lawyer turns to the Board of Judicial Conduct for help. Enter plucky Lacy Stoltz, a lawyer with extensive experience investigating complaints against judges.

Not for bribes and conspiracies but for much more mundane issues.

Stoltz and her partner, a former Florida State football player whose career ended prematurely because of injury, meet the lawyer and begin pursuing a long-shot case. Lacy and her partner are handicapped by numerous factors, starting with their lack of criminal investigation authority.

And they’re in way over their heads – facing violent mafia members without any crime-fighting skills.

While the bad guys can be cruel but cartoonish, Grisham retains his ability to conjure conspiracies and illustrate the depravities of kickbacks and payoffs. A few near misses and a lucky break or two later, not to mention an influx of much-needed investigative expertise, the downfall of some of the worst villains scattered throughout “The Whistler” arrives as part of a satisfying finale.

In the novel’s latter stages, Grisham hits his stride, deploying a sniper, introducing remote hideaways, and staging unexpected rendezvous made at considerable risk. A subplot involving the complexities of native American policing and politics puts some spark in the inevitable chase to find the culprits behind a murder cover-up.

There are far worse ways to spend your time than reading a solid if predictable Grisham thriller and, if this one doesn’t meet expectations, chances are the prolific author won’t make us wait long before he repays his vast audience with a more characteristic blockbuster tale the next time around.

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