In a Facebook discussion about John Dickson Carr that was sparked by a posted review of his classic The Three Coffins (which I reviewed myself here last week), author and fellow blogger Curtis Evans from The Passing Tramp described his own experiences with the author. While he had thoroughly enjoyed reading Carr as a young man, Curt found that, as an adult, the going got tougher. Having experienced this very same experience as I read Coffins, I wondered if, like Curt, I had once responded eagerly to that boyish sense of adventure and melodrama that imbues Carr’s work, but now found my adult sensibilities immune to his charms.
And then I read He Who Whispers.
If I told you that The Three Coffins (1935) is about Professor Grimaud, whose impossible death brings up the legend of the vampire, and of the murder on Cagliostro Street where nobody could have approached the victim, while He Who Whispers (1946) is about Professor Rigaud, an expert on the (real life) wizard Cagliostro, whose tale of an impossible death brings up the legend of the vampire, and of the murder atop a tower where nobody could have approached the victim, you might assume that Carr, like so many career mystery authors, is simply repackaging a storyline that had worked for him before. You would be wrong. In tone, technique and emotional resonance, the two novels could not be more dissimilar. And for this reader, the major difference was in the immense enjoyment I felt as I tore through Whispers, a pleasure that unfortunately eluded me when I read Coffins.
Here’s all I dare tell you about the plot, since much of the pleasure to be derived from this novel is in how it develops and twists along:
Miles Hammond has been discharged from the Armed Forces after spending the past eighteen months in a hospital, a victim of diesel oil poisoning. Having just inherited, along with his sister, his late uncle’s fortune, Miles intends to retire to his family home in the country and restore his uncle’s library. But first, he is invited by his friend, Dr. Gideon Fell, to attend a dinner gathering of the Murder Club to hear Fell’s scholarly pal Rigaud speak. When Miles arrives at the restaurant, the Club members are nowhere to be found, only the guest of honor and a beautiful blonde named Barbara Morell. Rigaud insists on giving his prepared talk to the pair as they dine, and it is a chilling tale of a family torn apart by a mysterious woman and an impossible crime committed on a crumbling high tower. Now, six years have passed, and the crime remains unsolved. This cold case leads the three dinner companions and Dr. Fell into a modern day conundrum with long ranging emotional repercussions for everyone involved.
If The Three Coffins is imbued with the chilly atmosphere of a dark fairy tale, He Who Whispers is firmly set in the realities of post-War England:
“ . . . a London still pinched by shortages; a London of long queues, erratic buses, dry pubs; a London where they turn on the street-lights, and immediately turn them off again to save fuel; but a place free at last from the intolerable weight of threats.”
I cannot remember reading a 1940’s mystery that so cleverly interweaves the after-effects of World War II into a domestic narrative: the streets that take on a haunted look because blitzed out buildings fill the landscape, the rooms devoid of light due to the blackout curtains, the characters prone to terror because of the recent scares imposed on them by Nazi raids. Carr provides a magnificent sense of the unreal imposing on the very real, of possibly supernatural horrors seeping into the lives of people who have only recently faced true horror. Unlike the darkness that permeates The Three Coffins just because it does, I totally bought into the post-War world that Carr creates here, where people shattered by war are more susceptible to the terrors of the unknown.
In terms of the mystery itself, we again have two different but “impossible” situations presented for our elucidation. The solutions to the crimes in Coffins are famously complex. By comparison, the explanation in Whispers is simple but no less satisfactory. This simplicity may or may not appeal as much to true fans of the “howdunit,” but it suited me just fine. I can admire the technical virtuousity with which Carr puts together the criminal’s actions in Coffins, but the plot and, especially, the characters left me cold. What happens in Whispers is more fraught with emotion, and it hit me in the gut! I came to know and care about the people in Miles Hammond’s world much more easily than the muted group of characters who populate Coffins.
The identity of the killer in Coffins surprised me, but that is the only surprise, unless you really want to try to suss out the murderer’s methods, a task that for most of us would prove impossible. On the other hand, I did manage to identify the killer in Whispers due to an early clue that I simply noticed and kept in my mind as events unfolded. However, knowing that person’s name did nothing to elucidate the entire plot as, one after another, a series of delightful surprises peeled away the killer’s evil plan. And evil it truly is! You can have your masked killer in Professor Grimaud’s study or your invisible murderer on Cagliostro Street. What happens in the comfortable upstairs bedroom of the Hammond estate is steeped in true wickedness, made even more chilling when the superstitious trappings give way to the actual events.
In addition, while Coffins is first, last and always about the pair of crimes and the solving of them, Whispers is just as much about the restoring of Miles’ spirit after his debilitating wartime experience. As usual, Carr has created a smallish cast of characters, but this time around, I cared about what happened to them, particularly Miles and the three women who gravitate around him throughout the story: his sister, Marion, Barbara Morell, whose interest in the proceedings is part of the mystery, and, most particularly, Fay Seton, the “mysterious woman” who figures so prominently in both crimes.
I realize that I really can’t discuss these characters without giving away some of the great twists in this novel, but I must say this: people accuse Carr of not creating fully fleshed characters, but one of the most significant aspects of his method as a mystery writer – something I think his focus on locked room crime causes us to overlook – is how he manipulates the reader’s opinion of the good or evil within a character. Without giving too much of the game away, Fay Seton’s true nature is perhaps the very heart of this mystery, even more than the identity of the killer. Each twist and revelation manages to both startle us and deepen the portrait of this most fascinating of creatures. I’ve read many classic mysteries, where the final lines of the novel cause me to jump in surprise. (I think of Queen’s The French Powder Mystery or Christie’s classic short story, “The Witness for the Prosecution.”) The final sentence of He Who Whispers both shocked and haunted me long after I put down the book, for reasons that go beyond the basic questions of whodunit or how was it done! It made me wonder about the fate of Miles and Fay and Barbara. It made me long for more information – in that good way you feel when you care about characters and don’t want to leave them. How often does that happen when we read a mystery? To me, it says something about the credit Carr deserves as a fully fleshed author, not just as a brilliant craftsman of impossible crimes – at least, when he is at the top of his game, as he is here.