He Who Whispers (John Dickson Carr)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

‘This case he was going to talk about was rather special and sensational…”

 “It is about the influence of a certain woman on certain lives… Crime and the occult! These were the only hobbies for a man of taste!”

A triumph of plotting, misdirection, atmosphere, tension, and story-telling — certainly one of Carr’s masterpieces. It begins with a flashback to France — grim, tense, atmospheric, and effectively terrifying, the reader sees the effect of the enigmatic Fay Seton upon the Brooke family, the tension before the storm, and the memorable impossible crime committed on top of a natural tower. As the narrative states, “To any person of imagination … this narrative of the stout little professor — its sounds and scents and rounded visual detail — had the reality of the living present”. The atmosphere builds up, with ominous warnings against Fay Seton, whom the historian hero of the story, Miles Hammond, has employed as a librarian, until it is revealed that she is believed to be “undead … the drainer of bodies and killer of souls”: a vampire. Following this revelation, the hero’s sister nearly dies of fright in an empty room. Nobody could have walked outside the windows, and (horrible idea, this) someone was whispering to her in the dark (hence the splendid title). The solution is one of Carr’s most dazzlingly ingenious (and frightening). The characterisation is superb, particularly Fay Seton, who has genuine tragedy and pathos,

Blurb (UK)

From the moment when Miles Hammond entered Beltring’s Restaurant in Soho to attend a dinner of the Murder Club, and heard the story of an unsolved sword-stick murder on the top of a tower near Chartres, to the dénouement in the New Forest, with Dr. Fell and Inspector Hadley in characteristic rôles, this fine detective story keeps the reader in a state of tense excitement.  Mr. Carr as usual is as successful in his creation of character as in his handling of ingenious plot and eerie atmosphere, and the result is a novel which will add to Dr. Fell’s high reputation.

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (30th March 1946, 110w): Fell’s explanation of these baffling matters is of the tricky variety which always delights his followers.  It isn’t, however, nearly as unnerving as it is intended to be.

Sat R of Lit (30th March 1946, 40w): Required reading.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 31st March 1946, 150w): Anyone who can read the first chapter of this book without continuing to the end is no true mystery fan.

Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 7th April 1946, 230w): Here’s more proof that Mr. Carr yields to no man or woman in the art of mystery trickery, the great desideratum of most mystery fans…  Grade A of its kind, with such a display of mystery jugglery as you’ll hardly find elsewhere.

Craig Rice: Murder that couldn’t have happened – and with an impossible motive.  Strange hints of the supernatural – and a girl frightened almost to death, these are the ingredients of John Dickson Carr’s latest and almost best.  Dr. Fell finds the solution which is a surprising one.  Don’t miss.

Chicago Tribune: Finely meshed puzzle built from macabre drama, carrying the reader thru goblin atmosphere.  One of this author’s most shrewdly plotted and engagingly written detective tales.

Anthony Boucher: This is Carr in excelsis, constructed with such admirable thrilling suspense from the first word that I decline even to outline the kinds of impossible murder, supernatural terror and abnormal psychology with which Dr. Gideon Fell is confronted.  In many ways it marks a return to the Middle Period Carr (the era of The Three Coffins and The Crooked Hinge); and that means the formal detective story at its highest point of ingenuity and literacy.

Philadelphia Bulletin: As mystery tales go, it isn’t just good, it’s the kind of story that takes hold of one’s imagination and then offers a real challenge to an arm-chair detective.  Anyone who can pick up the answer to this tale before the last few pages oughtn’t to merely read whodunits – they ought to write ’em.  First class in every respect.

John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 31st May 1946): THRILLS BACK TO NORMAL

This is a vintage month for detectives.  English sleuths, who may have suffered from war strain, are now back in full force, ousting their American counterparts and even the spies, with a most satisfactory collection of meaty puzzles.

First there is my special favourite Dr. Fell.  Rationing has not affected his figure, and his latest case, He Who Whispers, by John Dickson Carr, is the most exciting and suspenseful story that has come my way for many months.  The chief problem Dr. Fell has to solve this time is how a man could be murdered on top of a tower at a time when no one was or could have been near him.  But with Mr. Carr the plot—excellent as it is—is not the only thing; not by a long way…