JOHN DICKSON CARR. He Who Whispers (1946).

28 Mar

“Steady!” It’s a phrase—an authorial tic—that recurs throughout Carr’s fiction, and it pops up a couple of times in this compact novel that features the anything-but-compact Dr. Gideon Fell. Carr typically inserts that potent little exclamation at a moment when a character needs to gather his wits or his nerves in the face of some deeply alarming turn of events. Likewise, it’s an admonition that readers should heed as they try to follow the gobsmacking sequence of events that unfolds here. He Who Whispers is a miracle-problem tale that hurtles forward at a miraculous pace. Stunningly ingenious and adroitly engineered, it represents a peak moment in Carr’s career as a master puzzle setter.

HeWhoWhispers.jpgTwo interconnected problems, separated in time by the six years that mark the Second World War, drive the novel’s rapid-fire action and its breathtaking display of literary detection. First comes the crime at Chartres. In the peacetime summer of 1939, an English industrialist who lives in that French town walks to the top of an ancient tower and falls victim to an inexplicable act of violence: He’s found with a fatal wound from a sword-cane in his back, in circumstances that seem to rule out the possibility that anyone could have come near him at the time of the assault. Then, soon after the end of the war in Europe, comes the crime at New Forest. At a country house in that idyllic region, shots ring out in the night. Miles Hammond, the owner of the house (and the leading man in this affair), rushes upstairs and finds the prostrate form of his sister, Marion; there’s a gun in her hand, and she’s nearly dead from shock. Who, or what, could have put her into that state? And who, or what, could have spurred her to fire those shots?

Linking those incidents are a strange meeting in a Soho restaurant, hosted by a group called the Murder Club, and a young woman named Fay Seton, who carries with her an aura of tragedy—and the vague intimation that she might be a vampire, of all things. Hammond attends the gathering of the Murder Club, and there he learns about the Seton woman, and about her involvement in the events at Chartres. That knowledge, though, doesn’t stop him from bringing her to his New Forest home to serve as a kind of secretary. (The series of coincidences that lead her from one crime scene to the other is the one seriously dubious element in Carr’s generally strong plotting.) The Murder Club scenes make for a great set piece, combining an otherworldly mood of pure melodrama with a gritty sketch of life in a war-weary metropolis. The Seton character and Hammond’s romantic fascination with her, meanwhile, push this traditional mystery HeWhoWhispers2.jpg tale in a notably non-traditional direction.

[ADDENDUM: Last week, in comments that followed my less-than-enthusastic post about a Robert B. Parker novel, I noted that I don’t like writing negative reviews. This week, I get to correct the balance. I loved this novel by Carr, and I greatly enjoyed writing about it. It’s one of several Dr. Fell titles that I never got around to reading during my personal golden age of reading detective fiction, which occurred back when I was a teenager. Reading it now in my middle years (I sped through it a month or two ago), I felt the same thrill—the same sense of entrancement, the same rush of wanting (and yet not wanting) to reach the end of a book—that I felt when I first came under Carr‘s spell. My taste in detective fiction has broadened as I’ve grown older; I no longer expect every book by every writer to bedazzle and bamboozle me in that way that, say, a novel by Carr can do. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve outgrown my enthusiasm for what Carr called “The Grandest Game in the World.”]


Posted by on March 28, 2013 in British, Novel, Puzzle


18 responses to “JOHN DICKSON CARR. He Who Whispers (1946).

  1. John

    March 28, 2013 at 8:13 PM

    “[G]obsmacking sequence of events” — love that phrase! I think the more I read Carr the more I realize that this is my absolute favorite. It has all the elements of a mystery novel (and I use that term specifically rather than crime or detective novel) that greatly appeal to me — the bizarre thought that the one of the characters might be a vampire, the truly puzzling impossible crime aspect, the atmosphere of dread and macabre that pervades the piece. It is as you say a stunning achievement. It left me breathless and when I reached the finale I both gasped and laughed at how well he managed to pull the wool over my eyes.

    I never read your review last week as I have only ever read THE GODWULF MANUSCIRPT by Parker to completion. It was OK. All others I have tried I never managed to finish. But to address your negative review feelings — I have found it very hard to not come down too hard on a book that leaves me dissatisifed. I used to end up making fun of “bad books” a few years ago, but now I find I slam a book I don’t like. It’s getting harder to be kinder and gentler when I don’t like a book. I admire your ability to find the balance. That’s the best approach, but I find it more and more difficult for myself these days.

    • Mike

      March 29, 2013 at 4:25 PM

      Hello, John. I like your distinction (because I agree with it!) between the novel of mystery and the novel of detection. I’m very partial to the detective genre, but if a tale of detection can also function as a tale of mystery, then all the better. And, yes, the mystery elements of “He Who Whispers” are essential to its appeal.

      A big reason why I don’t like writing negative reviews is that I’m keenly aware of how widely tastes can differ. If you love the Spenser series, who am I to tell you that you shouldn’t. We like what we like. True, there are genuinely “bad books”—books that lack the rudiments of literary craft—but that’s not the problem with most books that I read and don’t like. Parker, for example, does a good job of telling a kind of story about a kind of hero that holds no interest for me.

  2. Cavershamragu

    March 29, 2013 at 1:17 AM

    Really enjoyed your enthusiastic review Michael, and not just because I am such a Carr enthusiast myself but also because I really recognise that same thrill when this particular author is on top form and is just bamboozling the reader with such staggering skill. Following on from John’s comments, I have only occasionally given really negative reviews, but usually to express disappointment though when you feel that the writer has been lazy or contemptuous of the reader it is very hard to keep the red ink from flowing!

    • Mike

      March 29, 2013 at 4:33 PM

      Thanks for your comment, Sergio. Carr deserves to have more people celebrate him. I went through a phase when, in reaction to my youthful enthusiasm for his work, I dismissed him in my mind as a “juvenile” writer. Then I rediscovered him, so to speak. I’m still not a great fan of his attempts to inject humor into his stories, but I’ve my appreciation has grown and grown for those things (plotting, pacing, atmosphere) that he does unambiguously well.

      • Cavershamragu

        March 30, 2013 at 3:33 AM

        It is great, isn’t it, when you can return to something and appreciate it anew? It’s a really positive feeling and certainly one to savour, especially compared with the opposite, which is more usually true, let’s face it!

  3. Puzzle Doctor

    March 29, 2013 at 1:54 AM

    Sometime you forget just how good a writer Carr was – recently reviewed The Curse Of The Bronze Lamp here and, despite the slightness and, to be honest, rubbishness of the mystery, it was a really entertaining read, with the simplicity of the plot only really bothering me a bit on hindsight. No offence to authors like Connington, but it’s best not to read his stuff back-to-back with Carr, or you realise exactly where the humdrum nickname comes from.

    I’ve three memories of this one – first, I don’t buy the death on the tower being feasible, second, I think this was one of the first Carr novels that I (mostly) solved and third, it’s very close to being Carr’s masterpiece. I’d rate a few books more highly – Til Death Us Do Part is the best Fell for me – but this one comes very close. It really should be required reading.

    • Mike

      March 29, 2013 at 4:47 PM

      I did read you review of “Bronze Lamp,” Puzzle Doctor. I haven’t read that one, so I had no comment to offer, but you definitely spurred me to move it higher on my mental to-be-read list. And you’re on point in noting that Carr wrote well, and seldom got credit for it. What’s more, he got better as he went along. Some of the early-1930s stuff is a bit hokey or juvenile. But by the mid-1940s, he was turning out novels that are lean and smart—and a blast to read.

      • Puzzle Doctor

        March 30, 2013 at 1:15 AM

        The test I find is how enjoyable it is to read the lesser works of an author. Carr usually passes this test, if you ignore the very late, post-stroke, entries and some of the earliest ones. I’ll check how well he does on the usually derided Problem Of The Wire Cage very soon.

  4. Skywatcher

    March 29, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    We all seem to love this book, and I think that it really does stand up as one of the best Carr novels. The plotting is excellent, with a genuinely clever trick played on the reader which I really didn’t see coming.. However, one of the things that really makes this such an impressive book is the depth of the writing. All of the stuff about the atmosphere of post-War London is genuinely evocative, and the characterisation helps to disprove the assertion that Carr was only about plotting. Clever as the book is, I remember that the first time that I read it, the thing that I took away from it was the poignancy of the final scenes.

    • Mike

      March 29, 2013 at 4:52 PM

      I could hardly agree more, Skywatcher. Remove the impossible-crime puzzles from this work, and what’s left is an intriguing tale about some intriguing people.

  5. Colin

    March 29, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    Great enthusiastic review of what has to be among the top five from Carr. Aside from the mystery itself, the novel just oozes atmosphere.

    • Mike

      March 29, 2013 at 4:57 PM

      Thanks for the comment, Colin. Clearly, the Internet is rife with Carr enthusiasts. Just this past week, there was my review of “Whispers,” and Puzzle Doctor’s review of “Bronze Lamp,” and Martin Edwards’s review of “The White Priory Murders.” When, then, is it so difficult for Carr’s books to remain in print? Why are there no BBC or ITV productions of his work? Talk about an unsolved mystery!

      • Skywatcher

        March 29, 2013 at 5:43 PM

        I understand that his family have been trying to interest TV companies for years, but so far to no avail.

      • Colin

        March 30, 2013 at 12:52 AM

        Mike, as far as TV productions of Carr’s work is concerned, I’ve often thought it might be down to the difficulty of translating the tricky elements of his plotting to the screen – but then Renwick managed something similar with Jonathan Creek.

        The fact that few of his books are ever in print at any given time is even stranger though.

  6. piero

    April 3, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    It was the first novel I read Carr. It was on a shelf in the closet of my aunt. In the cover photo was a tower. I liked it so much, I too was a kid and I’m halfway through my life now. And I when I read the Carr, I always feel the same pleasure, many times better than I felt then.

    • Mike

      April 3, 2013 at 5:01 PM

      Thanks for chiming in, piero. Carr is one of those writers whose work, if you’re inclined to like it and if you encounter it at an impressionable age, leaves a permanent mark on your memory. “The Problem of the Wire Cage” was my first Carr (I reviewed here a few months ago), and I still remember the particulars—the cover that was peeling away from the pages, the cover illustration with the blue-faced victim—of the copy that I read.

  7. curtis evans

    April 9, 2013 at 11:26 PM

    One of my favorites by Carr, though I could have done without Fell here.

    • Mike

      April 10, 2013 at 11:42 AM

      Thanks for the comment, Curt. I very much enjoy your “Passing Tramp” blog; you publish a wide variety of great stuff there.

      Fell, to my reader’s eye, seems to have a fairly unobtrusive presence in “He Who Whispers.” An intriguing side point: Carr’s routine use of proxy heroes such as Miles Hammond arguably makes a great-detective-like figure such as Fell superfluous.


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