51 pages • 1 hour readJohn Grisham
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The 2016 novel The Whistler by American author John Grisham is a legal thriller that centers on an investigation of corrupt business operations involving Native American gaming. The novel is based on the real-life corruption of US casinos in which entities outside the Native American community illegally offer financial incentives in exchange for long-term profit.
This is the 29th of Grisham’s adult novels, which are primarily legal thrillers but also include contemporary and humorous fiction. In addition, he has authored a middle grade fiction series: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. His books have been made into 11 films and four television adaptations. As of January 2021, The Whistler was in production for a one-hour television drama from TNT. Grisham’s books have consistently ranked at the top of the USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times bestseller lists. The Whistler is the first in a series, the second of which is The Judge’s List, Anchor (2021).
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Grisham acquired his legal and political expertise in his career as a lawyer and his tenure in the Mississippi House of Representatives. His work tends to focus on the inner workings of the law more than dramatic action.
The author uses the term “Indian” rather than “Native American” because the people in question largely prefer the former term.
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This study guide refers to the Kindle edition.
Lacy Stoltz is an investigator for the Florida Bureau of judicial conduct (BJC). Her job is to investigate allegations of misconduct by judges in a legal system remarkably free from judicial corruption. Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, are on their way to meet an informant who claims to have evidence of corruption on a scale that neither Lacy nor anyone else in the BJC has ever seen. The informant is Greg Myers, and the judge in question is Claudia McDover.
For 15 years, McDover has been on the payroll of Vonn Dubose, the head of the Coast Mafia. Their association began when Dubose talked the Tappacola Indian tribe into building a casino on their reservation. Dubose had been buying up and developing land around the reservation, filling it with condominiums and golf courses that would benefit from casino traffic. His main interest, however, was the income from the casino itself, which would generate millions of dollars a month, not subject to federal tax. Because of lax oversight by the state, embezzlement was a simple matter of walking out with the cash.
Some members of the tribe resisted the idea of the casino, feeling that it would attract crime and undermine tribal culture. Son Rozko and Junior Mace were the strongest opponents. However, Son was murdered in Junior’s bed with Junior’s wife. Judge Claudia McDover, presiding over her first murder case, presumed that Junior was guilty and slanted the trial in the prosecution’s favor. Junior is now on death row, running out of appeals. Meanwhile, the casino proposal passed, as its strongest detractors were out of the way.
Dubose approached Judge McDover regarding legal details like road permits and questions of eminent domain. The judge cleared up these obstacles in exchange for a gift of four condominiums held by offshore shell companies and a cut of the skim from the casino itself amounting to a quarter of a million dollars per month.
At first, Lacy and Hugo don’t make much progress in their investigation. They speak to Junior Mace at the prison and to Junior’s brother, Wilton, but neither can confirm Vonn Dubose’s involvement in the casino or Judge McDover’s complicity. Lacy and Hugo think they finally have a lead when an anonymous informant who lures them to the reservation in the middle of the night. The informant tells them nothing they didn’t already know. As they drive home, Hugo complains that something is wrong with his seatbelt. A moment later, an oncoming pickup swerves into their lane and hits them head-on. Hugo’s seatbelt and airbag fail, and he’s thrown through the windshield.
A second pickup pulls up. The driver of the totaled truck, Zeke Foreman, gets into the second truck with his accomplice, Clyde Westbay. Zeke has a bloody nose from the collision. They stop at an all-night filling station for ice. The owner of the station is suspicious, and when he hears about the collision on the reservation, he sends the security recording of the two men to the local police.
Hugo dies on the way to the hospital, and Lacy is unconscious for three days. She has hardly regained consciousness when her brother Gunther arrives to watch over her. Although he’s loud, domineering, and exhausting, Lacy is grateful to have him there.
The reservation constable, Lyman Gritt, finds the circumstances of the collision suspicious—especially after the tribal chief fires him and warns him not to speak to anyone about it. Lyman returns to the crime scene and finds a wad of bloody paper towels.
Far from frightening Lacy off, Hugo’s murder incites her to greater determination. Lacy and her boss, Michael Guismar, decide it’s time to involve the FBI. The FBI supervisor doesn’t think they have enough evidence, but a handsome, eager agent expresses interest in helping Lacy.
Hugo’s death causes Myers, to panic and disappear, leaving his girlfriend, Carlita, behind in Key Largo. Most BJC authorities think that if Carlita is afraid for her safety, she should call the local police for help. Only Lacy understands that Carlita is too frightened to trust anyone in a strange place. Her brother, Gunther, borrows a small plane from a friend and flies Lacy down to Key Largo to rescue Carlita.
Lyman Gritt arranges a clandestine meeting with Lacy and gives her the blood sample from the crime scene and a flash drive containing video of the two perpetrators at the filling station. The video and the DNA enable them to positively identify the man with the bloody nose as Zeke Foreman. Arresting Zeke, they make a deal with him for the name of his accomplice, Clyde Westbay.
Threatened with the choice between the death penalty and a short prison sentence, Westbay agrees to wear a wire and get Vonn Dubose to admit to arranging Hugo’s death.
With Myers gone and the FBI closing in on Dubose, Cooley—the contact between Myers and the mole in the judge’s office—flees too, leaving the informant, JoHelen Hooper, on her own. JoHelen calls Lacy in a panic because someone broke into her house and searched it. She goes into hiding.
While the FBI pursues indictments against the Coast Mafia, JoHelen is alone and scared, with a hitman close behind her. Lacy tracks her down, snatches her from under the hitman’s nose and, with Gunther’s help, spirits her away to an isolated cabin in North Carolina. They stay there while the FBI launches its strike on Dubose, arresting him and his henchmen.
Eventually, successful prosecutions put an end to the Coast Mafia. The hitman is found and arrested. The judge is sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Myers and Cooley collect their share of the whistleblower payout.
By John Grisham