Consult 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.
Dr 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.