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The ultimate ‘locked room’ mystery?

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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! 🙂

“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 château) 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…

On exercising restraint

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Regular visitors to the Ramblings might have noticed a certain lack of book hauls recently – and I’m someone who does love to share pictures of any books I find! However, I’m painfully aware at the moment of the amount of unread volumes in the house, and this has been thrown into stronger focus by the fact that we’re considering eventually downsizing. Although special and precious books will come with me, realistically I won’t be able to take all of them and so I’m trying to look at my library alongside *all* of the clutter in the house and it’s fairly scary – so I do need to do some serious pruning.

Also, as I mentioned recently, polyreading is not working for me at the moment, which is frustrating as there are so many books I want to be reading just now. This has made me realise that there’s not a lot of point in amassing more books that *might* be interesting just on the off-chance; instead, I need to be concentrating on those I actually own, deciding if I’m going to read them and then *actually* reading them!

I didn’t sign up for any of the challenges to only read from my stacks, because I figured if I set myself that restriction I wouldn’t actually stick to it. However, I do appear to have been reading a *lot* of books I already own so far (and we’re well into March already!) which is quite pleasing.

So I have been very, very selective with what I’ve been buying, and actually going back to using the library – for example, with a book I wanted to read recently in advance of the 1951 Club (coming next month!) I could have sent off for a second-hand copy. But I borrowed it instead as I reckoned I’d never particularly want to read it again, and that worked out fine. Obviously this is a habit I need to continue develop, although it *will* be hampered by the fact that my local library is not going to stock a lot of the older or more unusual titles I want to read…

However, I’ve been good in the charity shops, only picking up what I know I’ll read (“The Hollow Man” being a good example), and I’ve turned away from many a title which I would have bought not long ago in case I fancied reading it; and my online purchases have been minimal. A few review books have come in which I’ve read straight away, and I’m trying not to buy wildly on a whim after reading a good review of a book. How long this will last remains to be seen, but I’m quite pleased with myself so far. Meanwhile, here are the few recent incoming books, and the rationale behind them. And let’s hope I can keep up this trend!

“The Hollow Man”, which I found for 99p in the local Oxfam and read straight away – perfect classic crime and ideal reading for just now!

I read about this one online somewhere as the Siberian equivalent to Anne Frank’s diary – and with the subject matter as it is (a young girl’s reminiscences of her time exiled in Siberia) it sounded essential reading.

I blame Joachim at Science Fiction Ruminations for this one, as he happened to flag up that it contained a very early M. John Harrison story which had never been reprinted. So it was again essential!

And finally – I blame Jane at Beyond Eden Rock for this title as she mentioned it after I reviewed “Who Killed Charles Bravo”! A fictionalised account of the life of one of the players in the drama, Dr. Gully, by a Virago author – well, how *could* I resist?

I’ve read one of the four so far – let’s hope the others don’t wait too long! 🙂

The perfect locked-room mystery!

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The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

Well, this wasn’t the book I was intending to read right now! I was in the middle of a short story collection (Cortazar) which I was alternating with an Elizabeth Bowen, when I stumbled across this lovely Golden Age crime novel for 99p in the Oxfam. How could I resist? And as it’s a busy time for me at the moment, in life and at work, it’s exactly the kind of book I needed.

John Dickson Carr is of course the king of the locked room mystery. Although not the creator of the genre (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe, although “The Big Bow Murder” is held to be the originator of the classic tradition), he took it and made it his own, producing 23 novels featuring his detective Dr. Gideon Fell, all of which were variations on the theme. “The Hollow Man” is judged to be one of his best, and indeed was once voted the best example of its kind ever – so I was naturally keen to read it.

“The Hollow Man” features two apparently insoluble crimes; one man, Dr. Grimaud, dies in a locked room which really has no way in or out at all. The chimney is no help, there’s no secret passageway, the window is high and there’s untouched snow on the ground below and the roof above. Grimaud has been threatened in front of a group of his friends by Pierre Frey, an illusionist, who is murdered the same night and his assassination is even more peculiar. He’s shot in the middle of a street (delightfully, just round the corner from Persephone Books’ home, Lambs Conduit Street) with two witnesses who can swear there was no one else there, there are no tracks in the snow and the weapon is found next to the body. It seems as though the killer must indeed have been an invisible or hollow man, because even Gideon Fell is struggling to find a solution.

The household of Grimaud is a quirky and interesting one: there is his housekeeper, Mme Dumont; his fiery daughter Rosette; and the scholar Drayman who has some connection with Grimaud going back a long way. In fact, the story proves to have long roots, and Fell, together with his colleague Superintendent Hadley, will have to do much digging to get to the bottom of things.

THM is a fabulous, and sometimes quite chilling read. There is reference to dark deeds from the past which is really rather spooky, and hints of the supernatural. Fell is an excellent detective, the supporting cast a nice variety (including Rampole, an American friend of Fell’s, and his wife) and there’s loads of drama, twists and red herrings. The solution is fiendishly ingenious and I defy any reader to solve it – which is why I don’t want to say too much about the plot because to spoil this treasure of a book would be a pity.

Authot picture c. National Portrait Gallery

The book is hugely entertaining, and it’s also notorious for one particular section. Towards the end of the book Carr treats us to a chapter where Fell expounds on the whole subject of locked room mysteries, their different types and solutions, and even has his detective remind the other characters and the reader:

‘But, if you’re going to analyse impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’

‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’

It’s a fascinating piece, and has apparently become something of a standard text to guide authors in the production of locked room mysteries!

So a wonderfully satisfying Golden Age read (and not bad for 99p). I read masses of green Penguins back in my 20s and I’m pretty sure Carr’s works were amongst them, though I can’t remember the titles. He was a prolific author; as well as his Fell stories, he produced numerous others under his own name and dozens as Carter Dickson. One of only two Americans admitted to the Detection Club, his books are obviously something special and this one one was so gripping I stayed up far too late at night as I really couldn’t put it down. Alas, I feel an urge coming on to read nothing but classic crime!!

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