He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr – Review
By Sarah Morgan
Whether he was writing under his real name or the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, or Roger Fairbairn, John Dickson Carr rarely failed to keep his readers beffuddled, baffled and on the edge of their seats until the final lines of his novels.
Although born in Pennsylvania, he lived in Britain for many years, setting many of his books on our shores. He fell out of favour for a while, but is now regarded as one of the finest of all Golden Age crime writers.
Carr was prolific too, as a quick glance at his bibliography reveals. What seems even more incredible is that his plots aren’t the kind you could dash off in a matter of moments – they’re well regarded for their intricate, puzzling storylines that leave readers guessing.
He Who Whispers, originally published in 1946 and featuring arguably his most popular detective, Dr Gideon Fell, is certainly a complex tale. It’s not only crime fiction fans who will find it appealing, horror-lovers may be interested too thanks to its suggestion that the murder at the heart of the story may have been committed by a vampire.
The story takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War. Academic Miles Hammond, who’s reaching the end of a long convalescence, is invited to the first meeting of The Murder Club – a panel of enthusiasts led by Dr Fell – in five years. However, on his arrival, he finds that none of the regulars have turned up, leaving he and fellow guest attendee Barbara Morell as the only witnesses to a sordid tale from Professor Rigaud.
It involves the murder of an English businessman living in France. He was killed atop a tower in his grounds, with the finger of suspicion pointed firmly at his secretary, Fay Seton, a young woman disliked in the local village due to rumours about her nocturnal activities.
Fay had been due to marry the dead man’s son, Harry, who was later killed during the war. Now she’s back in England and, coincidentally, Miles has employed her to catalogue his late uncle’s extensive library.
More bizarre events occur, including the near-death of Miles’s sister, and he vows to get to the bottom of it while also clearing Fay’s name – it seems she’s like catnip to young men, and inadvertently has them eating out of the palm of her hand.
Dr Fell, a friend of his, also appears to help unravel the mystery.
As is always the case with the British Library Crime Classics series, there’s much to admire about He Who Whispers, and it certainly has an ingenious plot. I felt, however, that the denouement was perhaps a little too convoluted full of too many guesses rather than known facts. I’d worked out whodunit before the final chapter, which features Dr Fell’s rather long-winded explanation.
Nevertheless, as an entertaining time-passer for those long, cold nights, it’s still well worth tracking down.
He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr is published by the British Library