On page one of John Grisham’s new novel, The Whistler, we’re introduced to a character that is napping. It’s fitting, because this book will put you to sleep.
For all of Grisham’s flaws, pacing is usually not one of them. Even his worst books move at a rapid clip, sweeping the reader along, but this one is slow, plodding, and perfunctory. In many ways, it is very similar to his awful 2014 effort, Gray Mountain.
That was the first time Grisham’s main protagonist was a female (since, arguably, The Pelican Brief) and he failed her mightily. Two years later, he returns to a female lead, and while The Whistler is not as bad, it isn’t much better. Though not as idealistically naive, this book’s main character, Lucy Stoltz, is like Gray Mountain‘s heroine, Samantha Kofe, in that she finds things “hard to believe,” is courageously dumb, and has no complexity. She’s just there. She’s too boring to be likable or unlikable.
She’s not the only flat character. The two main antagonists – a crooked judge and an underworld kingpin – are more caricatures than characters. They are even presented as such, described as “smug in their schemes and incredible wealth” as they “chuckled at their own crookedness.” Meanwhile the good guys know “the notion of justice was alive.” Other bad guys are “cronies” and “crooks” and stolen merchandise is referred to “goodies” and “loot.” How does this get past an editor? It’s like a bad noir parody.
To that point, there are so many poor uses of language in this book. “Little” has long been Grisham’s favorite adjective, but here he uses it on nearly every page – “little scheme,” “little investigation,” “little uniform,” etc. Identical phrases are repeated by various characters, and much of the dialogue is stilted and expository. And, like Kofer, Stoltz doesn’t speak like a woman born in 1980, but like a man born in 1950. Her butt is twice referred to as her “rump.” I think Grisham needs to read UrbanDictionary more often. It gets worse. About halfway through, he introduces an annoying character named Gunther and, in the very next sentence, has him watching a rerun of Friends. Seriously?
There are even more issues, most notably a large subplot left largely unanswered (weird since it is the basis for the book’s prequel, which would have been better served as the prologue) and the bizarre choice to repeatedly mention how tired everyone is. Seriously, at least four people in this book take a nap at some point. The characters in this very story can’t even stay awake!
But the worst part – by far – is the narrative.The book is billed as a legal thriller, but there are no thrills. There is no suspense or surprises. After page 150, very little happens, so for the final two hundred pages, it’s straight explanation. There’s really no climax.
Grisham’s ability to explain legalese in a relatable way is as strong as ever and there is the foundation of really good story here, but it goes nowhere. I kept expecting something to happen and it never did. Still, I kept reading, largely because I’m a slave to the Grisham formula, which I once described as salsa con queso (empty yet delicious), but this was not good. Is there such a thing as a boring page-turner? If so, this is it.
As someone that’s read every book of his at least twice, this was a painful exercise. Since 2008, Grisham’s had far more misses than hits and, honestly, I’m not sure how much more I can take. Skip this book and listen to his interview on Brian Koppelman’s podcast instead.
Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.