He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr

I so much enjoyed my read of JDC’s “The Hollow Man” recently that when The Reader is Warned commented and recommended his book “He Who Whispers” I just couldn’t resist tracking down a copy – and a very battered little old green Penguin it is too! Like many readers, I find classic crime a wonderful palate cleanser between books and so I picked this one up after reading a big book for Shiny New Books – yes, I know I’m meant to be reading Elisabeth Von Arnim for April, and hopefully I’ll get there soon! ๐Ÿ™‚

“The Hollow Man” was published in 1935; “He Who Whispers” is a later volume from 1946 and as the book opens we are firmly in London just after the end of the war. Our main protagonist, Miles Hammond, is making his way through a bomb-scarred London to an evening gathering of the Murder Club, and he finds himself still adjusting to the fact that the conflict is over. The location – around Shaftesbury Avenue, Dean Street, Soho – is familiar to anyone who haunts the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, but the landscape has been fragmented by the war and Miles (and the reader!) are unsettled by it. The Murder Club (presumably a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Detection Club) are normally very secretive, but Miles and a young woman, Barbara Morell, have been specially invited to hear Professor Rigaud tell the story of an impossible crime (a variant on the locked room mystery where the action doesn’t take place in a locked room but is equally impossible and unsolvable); while in France, he got to know the English Brooke family who were living locally. All seemed calm and happy with the family until the arrival of Fay Seton, a new secretary for father Brooke. Young Harry Brooke, the doted-upon only son of the family, soon fell in love with Fay and they were to be married; however, terrible rumours circulated about Fay and Mr. Brooke received anonymous letters. Determined to break off the relationship, he arranged to meet Fay on top of a local tower (part of a ruined chรขteau) and pay her off; however, he was murdered and the money disappeared.

The murder, however, is not straightforward: Mr. Brooke was on top of the tower alone; Rigaud saw his son leave the tower and Brooke was still alive; as Rigaud was leaving a family arrived for a picnic and it was the children of this family that discovered Brooke senior murdered on top of the tower – stabbed in the back. Talk abounds of the supernatural and vampires; accusations are made about Fay; and a crisis is reached as it is revealed that the new librarian Miles has employed to help him sort out his late uncle’s vast library in his country house of Greywood is none other than Fay Seton… As Miles and his sister set off to the country with Fay, there are many questions to be answered: why is Barbara Morell so interested in the case? Who is Jim Morrell? Why is Rigaud convinced the supernatural is involved? And who *did* kill Mr. Brooke? Fortunately, Rigaud is friendly with Doctor Gideon Fell, Honorary Secretary of the Murder Club, and it will take all of Fell’s genius to unravel the case.

“He Who Whispers” was, of course, a wonderful read and I can see why it’s ranked so highly amongst JDC’s books. His scene setting is just brilliant: he captures the atmosphere in France where the family tensions of the Brookes come to a head and the murder takes place; the sense of doom and disaster that surrounds Fay Seton; the genuine sense of creeping menace at Greywood as a dramatic murder attempt occurs; and the shocking twists and turns in the narrative as Miles’ perceptions (and ours!) are challenged, twisted and turned upside down! The solution was one that I never saw coming, and there were some surprisingly dark and complex strands to the behaviour of the characters, and perhaps an unexpected explanation to the reason why Fay ended up with the reputation she had.

A criticism often levelled at Golden Age crime is that there is limited depth of character and development but I didn’t find that the case here. The protagonists in “He Who Whispers” are more than just props to hang a puzzle on; their motivations are crucial to what happens and their actions believable in the context of their lives and the plot. The psychology of the crime is a recurring theme of discussion throughout the book and vital to the detection of the solution. Carr very cleverly shows, too, just how easy it is to misunderstand someone, or to misread their real personality; he also shows how easy it is for the reader of a detective novel to simply accept what the various characters tell them without questioning it, only to have those perceptions turned upside down later on in the book!

So another wonderful classic crime book to add to my collection – I’m trying to resist the temptation to start tracking down more of JDC’s books. And yet again, I stayed up much too late reading this book – truly, Golden Age crime novels, and particularly John Dickson Carr ones, are not good for my sleeping habits…