09 July 2017

The Thrill is Gone

by Leigh Lundin

John Grisham novels draw me in; I enjoy them immensely. The Firm especially appealed to me because it struck close to home, following my stumbling upon massive fraud within one of the largest Wall Street firms. In imaginative moments, I picture a dark, violent response turned into a Hollywood thriller. I could have found myself in a dastardly plot, on the run for my life with a miniskirted damsel as vice presidents and accounting drones dropped dead around me. Excited movie audiences would gasp between mouthfuls of popcorn, women would cry, and children would whisper, “He’s so bwave.”

Twists of tension hallmark a Grisham tale. Some of his novels are sensitive and many explore societal issues, but I most enjoy his thrillers, those with brain versus vicious brawn.

During the holiday, I sat down with The Whistler, which promised to be a thriller. Meh, not so much.

Not every book from a great author turns out brilliantly. S.S. Van Dine said writers should stop after six novels, because no author has more than six good mystery books in him. There’s truth in that and Van Dine went on to prove his own point. He wrote twelve novels, but critics felt the latter half dozen were decidedly inferior.

Problem Number 1

Grisham set his novel in Florida. Mere Mississippi madness can’t match Florida’s lunatic weirdness, no more than New York neurosis nor Indiana insanity can. Florida floats alone in its own sea of bizarre psychosis.

Take for example our governor… please. This man committed the largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid history… the most sizable medical corruption ever. The fines alone amounted to $1.7-billion, which left him plenty remaining to buy a Florida governorship. We, the real loonies who ignored his corruption, voted him into office not once but twice.

Rick Scott, largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid history
Florida Governor Rick Scott, largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid history © Miami Herald

Thus when Grisham’s novel promises the largest judicial fraud in the history of America, the bar is set historically high. The New York Times reviewer failed to grasp this, but the multi-millions discussed in the story don’t come close to real-life frauds, not by Florida standards. Cons and bunco-artists have long prospered in the Sunshine State where mere six and seven figures are pocket change. If Grisham hadn’t promised biggest, hugest, worstest fraud, then we Floridians might have more easily suspended our disbelief.

Problem Number 2

I wanted more characterization, particularly of its heroine, Lacy Stoltz. While the author shortchanged many characters, Grisham delivered better with her short-lived partner, Hugo Hatch. Grisham colorfully describes Greg Myers/Mix, a disbarred lawyer, but abandons him halfway through the book.

Characterization of minor characters shouldn’t come at the expense of major inhabitants, especially the criminal mastermind behind everything, barely fleshed out by the end of the novel. We also learn little about the whistle-blower who started it all.

As for corrupt Judge Claudia McDover, I award a C. The main issue comes from her worrying if a man she sent to death row was truly guilty. Listen, John, we in Florida love to send even innocents to Old Sparky and Gassy Gus and believe me, officials don’t fret about it, they brag about it. Get with the program, man.

I lost count at the number of bitter divorcĂ©es in the novel, five or possibly six. Male writers think the way to a woman’s heart is to capitalize on putative anger towards men. Whether this James Pattersonian model is correct, I leave to readers.

Of all the characters, Lacy’s obnoxious, protective brother comes across as the most real. He’s the one guy we can picture in a love/hate way. If all characters were constituted this well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Problem Number 3

Thrillers should feature thrills or at least suspense. At no time did I believe the heroine’s life was in danger. Her one brush with death came and went so suddenly, neither she nor we had time to fear for her.

Our disbarred lawyer Greg Myers disappears, presumed taken out by the bad guys. Then we’re told he might remain alive, sucking the air out of that danger. His girlfriend’s safety is more problematic, but that’s quickly resolved.

The tension ramps up a little regarding the whistle-blower. Thanks to the foresight of an alarm system and home security cameras, that risk proved minimal. It's no Pelican Brief.

The Firm set a high standard of suspense and tension. When people talk of an exciting Grisham novel, that’s the one that comes to mind. If The Whistler hadn’t been billed as a thriller and hadn’t overhyped superlatives of corruption and badness, it would fall comfortably in the drama arena. As it’s presently marketed, it’s a thriller absent of thrills.

The Grisham We Know and Love

But wait, all is not lost. It’s still an interesting read and Grisham gives us a little of the social commentary he’s noted for, particularly about Florida’s death penalty, which sounds much like my own writings.

Grisham briefly describes Florida’s Starke death row (there’s a self-descriptor!) where 400 men are warehoused in 6×9×9 un-air-conditioned cells, designed to make their remaining time on Earth as miserable as possible.
“Only California had more men on death row than Florida. Texas was a close third, but since it was more focused on keeping its numbers down, its population was around 330, give or take. California, which little interest in executing people, had 650. Florida longed to be another Texas, but its appellate courts kept getting in the way. Last year, 2010, only one man was lethally injected in Starke.”

“Total isolation leads to sensory deprivation and all sorts of mental problems. Corrections experts were just beginning to recognize this, and a movement to reform the practice of solitary confinement was struggling to gain momentum. Said movement had not made it to Florida.”
I’ve touched upon my AmerInd background and mentioned my parents’ disdain for the politically correct ‘Native American’ and ‘Indigenous American’ labels. Grisham is more comfortable writing about First Nation people than many writers. My family couldn’t have agreed more with his observation.
“The term ‘Native American’ is a politically correct creation of clueless white people who feel better using it, when in reality the Native Americans refer to themselves as Indians and snicker at those of us who don’t.”
I award The Whistler a 6.9.

Your View

Have you read The Whistler? What is your opinion?

7 comments:

Eve Fisher said...

I haven't read it, and actually don't plan to. Heard too many things about it...
I'm not sure about the 6 mystery rule, but I do think that if you're going to promise "the largest judicial fraud in history", you need to know what WAS the largest fraud in the place you're setting it. Ask around. See if your proposed fraud gets everyone laughing because it's nothing like what happened last year, last week, last night. At the very least, it sounds like Grisham should have given Hiaasen a call.

Melodie Campbell said...

I really liked this post, Leigh. I was never a huge Grisham fan, and for one of the points you touch on. I found his female characters - the ones I would normally relate to- not well drawn. I was smiling when you mentioned the divorcee count. Yes, I've noticed that too. I am dead tired of the heart-of-gold-hooker trope, and the bitter divorcee trope. I once had this discussion with a male author. I said, "How would you feel if the only male characters in the suspense novel you were reading, were gigolos, or bitter misogynists?" He said, "You're right. I wouldn't relate to either."
It's a good lesson for my Crafting a Novel students, at any rate.

Dale Andrews said...

I've read it and I agree. Grisham has a spare writing style that served him very well in The Firm and the first few of his books. The problem, for me, is that he has stopped using his style to develop real and likable characters. The recent works read, to me, like little more than outlines. This is also true of Grisham's latest,
Camino Island, which I got lured into following a decent review in The Washington Post. Character development is so lacking that you can't really figure out why anyone is doing the things Grisham engaged in.

B.K. Stevens said...

I haven't read it and, especially after your review, don't plan to. I've got to admit I'm not much of a Grisham fan--I didn't even like The Firm much. In fact, that's one of the rare cases when I thought the movie was better than the book. (I could never forgive the protagonist in the book for not telling his wife he'd had sex with another woman. He was tricked into it, and he could have and should have explained it. But to have him never face any consequences at all, to have him make a private joke about it on the last pages--no. And I thought the movie came up with a much smarter ending, too.)

Leigh Lundin said...

That’s brilliant, Eve. “Carl, this is John. What have your political fraudsters done now?”

Melodie, I wish I could sit in on your classes. In two or three of his recent books, Grisham has been following other mostly male authors by having a pivotal character decide she likes other women. Another thing I noticed is that when one very popular male author writing from a woman’s viewpoint (if you’re thinking James Patterson, you wouldn’t be wrong) would stop the action to discuss fashion.

Dale, I was considering Camino Island until I read your take on it. I haven’t read Rogue Lawyer yet. The New York Times is schizophrenic about it, at one point preferring it to Michael Connelly’s The Crossing and at another time calling it a ripoff of Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer.

Bonnie, I can’t recall the joke you mention. Darn. As you say, the premises of the novel and the movie were the same but the plot lines diverged into two different stories. I liked both and I’d forgiven the hero by the end of the story. Perhaps the consequences was nearly losing his marriage.

B.K. Stevens said...

Leigh, I checked, and my memory was faulty. The protagonist, Mitch, doesn't actually make a joke--you might say Grisham does. Mitch is sitting with his wife on a beach, and she asks him if he's ever made love on a beach. Of course, he had sex on a beach when he cheated on her. Mitch hesitates and then says "no," and his wife suggests they get busy on this beach and make a baby. So Mitch isn't actually guilty of joking about his infidelity, but Grisham is. We readers can all have a good laugh at the wife for never figuring things out, and Mitch gets rewarded with sex on a beach and possibly a baby. That's what ticked me off.

Leigh Lundin said...

Ah. Bonnie, I didn’t read it that way at all. She asks if he *made love* on the beach, and he answers no… he’d been set up and blindsided by sex, but he truthfully hadn’t *made love*. No one was laughing at the wife, but sympathizing, or at least that’s my take.