He Who Whispers

hewhowhispersConsult a list of the top five Carr books and He Who Whispers is almost guaranteed to be on it.  This is widely considered to be classic Carr, and I won’t argue with that sentiment.  It has it all – the quality of the puzzle, the sense of adventure, memorable characters, and a haunting ending.  It’s this well rounded nature that raises it above such strong competition; the many other Carr tales often sagging slightly in one dimension or another.

I’ve only read 15 Carr stories so far, with some notorious gaps (The Hollow Man, The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Crooked Hinge), but I think I can spot a classic when I see it.  There’s something about how all of the aspects of the story work together in concert.

Carr immediately sets a strong tone, starting out with a meeting of the mysterious Murder Club; a secret society at which stories of nefarious crimes are shared.  The speaker on this occasion recounts the tale of a past murder in France that took place under impossible circumstances.  A man is stabbed with a sword cane while alone at the top of a tower.  The tower, and its only exit, is in clear view of a number of witnesses, yet no one is seen entering or exiting.

This distant crime leads to a present day mystery, which draws the attention of Dr Fell.  The story moves briskly and takes place in a number of settings, but everything always turns back to the the past – the murder atop the tower in France.  Similar to The Red Widow Murders and Hag’s Nook, Carr uses the haze of time to both draw you into the story, and yet to hold a certainty of events just out of your reach.

HeWhoWhispers2Dr Fell drifts in and out of the story, playing a more minor role than in some books.  This doesn’t hamper the narrative, as we’re provided with a cast of strong characters – the most memorable being the woman suspected of committing the crime.  Similar to Till Death Do Us Part, Carr provides us with the seemingly sympathetic female character, forever plagued by specters of false accusations.

Perhaps what matters most for lovers of impossible crimes is how it all works out in the end.  The solution to the puzzle doesn’t disappoint – in fact it’s one of Carr’s cleanest.  Not so elegant as The White Priory Murders or The Emperor’s Snuff box, but probably third in line in terms of what I’ve read.

There’s a beauty to the ending too.  A haunting aspect to both the solution to the puzzle and how the book itself closes.  This is one that sticks with you after you’ve read it.  The only analogy I can make is She Died a Lady.  Although I found that story slightly overrated, there is something about the final chapter that makes me want to go back and reread it.

45 thoughts on “He Who Whispers”

  1. I’m a big Carr fan, but this one for some unknown reason leaves me colder than it does most people. I know that most other people rank this volume higher than I do, and I’m pretty sure it’s my issue, not theirs. Glad you liked this one. Perhaps it’s time I re-read this; I know I’ve been most challenged by Carr when he meets sexuality head-on and I recall this one is quite adult.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha, I’ve just finished The Devil in Velvet, and given the amount of shagging that goes on in that book I’m imagining you’d also qualify it as “quite adult” — I’ll admit I was surprised; who knew Carr had such a kinky streak?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read The Judas Window (and most of Carr) at a very young age and remember being relieved that my mother couldn’t be bothered to read mysteries, as I knew the girl who had allowed her lover to take nude photographs of her was considerably above my permitted maturity level.

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  2. I don’t want to say too much here, as I’m considering looking at this for Carr’s 110th on Nov 30th (you’re in on that, right?), but it’s another excellent piece of atmosphere that doesn’t smother the story in the way that, say, The Crooked Hinge does (<a href="https://theinvisibleevent.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/27-the-crooked-hinge-1938-by-john-dickson-carr-a-triple-decker-review/"my thoughts on that here), and the solution is a piece of pure masterwork. But I do wonder how much it really offers to those people who aren’t so motivated by impossible crimes (weirdos that they are, as we know…) — but, alas, there I veer into an essay of great length that I may yet write. It is a great Carr, and I’m delighted to see you get so much out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I often feel that the maxim “less is more” meant little to Carr, with there being a whole lot of purple prose in his stories, especially the earlier ones, which hamper the flow of their respective narratives. But this was one exception where the usual Carr-isms were reigned in, the writing much leaner, the dialogue much more natural and the fact of all the events and exchanges taking place within a compressed timeframe made for a thrilling ride, shades of Til Death Do Us Part.

    While I think most seasoned readers will identify the culprit well in advance (I did), and will be skirting on the edges of the solution to the tower impossibility without perhaps figuring it out completely (I was), the denouement is nevertheless beautifully delivered and, the reviews are correct to say, uniquely affecting thanks to the poignant reason behind the impossibility on the tower. The clewing is also first rate, especially if you catch the right trail early, you can only smile and feel almost Fell-like as each successive one bolsters your suspicions. I have a feeling the further I get from HWW the more I’ll come to regard it as his masterpiece, but time will tell.


    1. I didn’t come close to figuring this one out, although I’m glad for that. The puzzle of the murder at the top of the tower is one of Carr’s best, and love how the retelling is done. He Who Whispers seems to have slipped in reputation in recent years, but I really don’t understand that. Definitely one of Carr’s finest moments.


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