HE WHO WHISPERS (1946) by John Dickson Carr

Carr_He-Who-Whispers_IPLThis classic Golden Age detective story features a seemingly impossible murder and came top of the 2014 John Dickson Carr poll, somewhat to my surprise. I hadn’t read it in a while (well, try 30 years actually, and only in translation) – in fact, I didn’t even include it in my own top 10! Clearly this was the perfect time to re-read this one – is it as good as everybody said? Set immediate before and after the Second World War, we open with a meeting of ‘The Murder Club’ in London and a discussion on an impossible crime …

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack.

“Crime and the occult!” Professor Rigoud had declared, flourishing his knife and fork. “These are the only hobbies for a man of taste!”

Gideon Fell has invited Miles Hammond as his guest to listen to Professor Rigoud recount an (as yet) unsolved impossible crime that occurred in Chartres just before the war. A wealthy Englishman, Henry Brooke, was found stabbed with his own sword-cane at the top of a tower despite having been there alone according to several unimpeachable witnesses on three sides of the structure. The only other way to reach him was also impossible as it would have meant scaling a sheer wall several storeys high that faced a river.

“It almost seemed that the murder, if it was a murder, must have been committed by someone who could rise up unsupported in the air … “

Carr-He-Who-Hesitates_bantam2Despite this Brooke’s secretary, the mysterious and alluring Fay Seton, is accused of the crime – she was engaged to his son Henry but a whispering campaign about her had gripped the little village, accusing her of everything from sexual indiscretion to vampirism! The war is now over, Henry and his mother are dead too and Fay is back in London. Miles has just inherited a house in the New Forest from his uncle with a large library that needs cataloguing and he hires Fay for the job. They travel down there with his sister Marion, who that night is found in her room nearly dead from shock after having fired a gun at something outside her second floor window, which is fifteen feet from the ground …

“No burglar on earth could scare Marion. She is not exactly what you could call a nervous type”

Let me say that I flat-out loved this book! It is an ultra typical Carr extravaganza involving an impossible crime, intimations of the supernatural, an eerie depiction of pre-war France, an incredibly evil murder method inspired by Italian occultist Cagliostro, an apparently ‘bad’ woman who the author refuses to judge, and it also includes a fascinating depiction of London’s Soho and the underground system immediately after the war. And to top it all, a very, very well concealed villain. I got there about a page early, but it was as usual with this author a genuine thrill to see just how well the wool was pulled over my eyes. I think this book will have to be added to my Carr top 10, though there are so many exceptional detective stories of his to choose from that I always agonise over that sort of thing. It is not perfect as it does rely on several coincidences, though they don’t really hurt the book – and anyway such small imperfections are obliterated by the sheer cunning of the story. It also features, in one of its closing revelations, something that must have been considered a bit daring for its day, once again proving that Carr could be quite a modern author in some respects. And a final page that is, in its own very idiosyncratically romantic fashion, unexpectedly moving. When adapted for radio, some of the coincidences were smoothly removed, but so was at least one of its most distinctive touches …

519GSTV3EAL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_In 2000 the BBC broadcast a one-hour adaptation of the book as part of its Gideon Fell series starring the late Donald Sinden – these were all produced and directed by Enyd Williams and dramatised by Peter Ling. In adapting it, Ling made a number of small cosmetic changes to keep the series consistent, including dropping one character entirely (I shan’t say which, as it’s a potential spoiler), so giving a more prominent role for Hadley (the books adapted for the series were nearly all chosen from the ones in which he originally appeared). The story is relocated to 1937, with the events in France taking place in 1931. Some of the coincidences are also tidied up, with Fell and Hadley responsible for bringing Fay Seton and Miles Hammond together, while the business about the last-minute rush to catch the train to London is also made a bit more plausible. One the other hand, Seton’s character and motives are simplified – perhaps for reasons of space or taste, though it does rob the story of a truly memorable character trait, one rarely seen in GAD fiction. Still, this is otherwise very faithful and Sinden makes for an engaging Fell, though admittedly he was not an obvious bit of casting (he might have been better as Merrivale, though I have always fancied Timothy West in the part). As always with the BBC, the production is technically impeccable, though I never liked the rather jolly theme music (the composer is uncredited).

The Dr Gideon Fell Mysteries (BBC Radio, 1997-2001):

  • The Hollow Man 2 parts (26 March – 2 April 1997)
  • The House in Gallows Lane – 2-parts  (8-15 October 1997), a re-titled adaptation of Carr’s novel, Till Death Do Us Part
  • To Wake the Dead – 2 parts (22-29 October 1997)
  • The Blind Barber (5 November 1997)
  • The Black Spectacles (9 May 1998)
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery (3 July 1999)
  • He Who Whispers (25 March 2000)
  • Below Suspicion (20 January 2001)

51S3FSCH84LAvailability: The first two productions – The Hollow Man and The House in Gallows Lane – were released on audio tape but never on CD. The series is occasionally repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra and copies are in circulation on the gray market and are well worth finding if you are a fan f radio drama … Also worth keeping an ear out (sic) for The Genius of Gideon Fell, a documentary made as part of the BBC radio series The Radio Detectives by historian Jeffrey Richards devoted to Gideon Fell on radio, including coverage of the early Carr plays from the 1940s.

He Who Whispers / Gideon Fell (BBC Radio Four – 25 March 2000)
Director: Enyd Williams
Producer: Enyd Williams
Scriptwriter: Peter Ling
Cast: Donald Sinden (Fell), John Hartley (Hadley), Christopher Kelham (Miles Hammond), Gemma Saunders (Barbara Morrell), Sarah Rice (Fay Seton), Beth Chalmers (Marion Hammond), David Thorpe (Steve Curtis), Paul Gregory (Doctor Gilpin), Gavin Muir (Frederick the Head Waiter), Tom George (Hotel Desk Clerk)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘locked room / impossible crime’ category:


***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Audio Review, England, Five Star review, France, Gideon Fell, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery, London. Bookmark the permalink.

69 Responses to HE WHO WHISPERS (1946) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Oh, this does sound like vintage Carr, Sergio!! How fun! Glad you enjoyed it so well. Interesting isn’t it how those great books can just get by us somehow so that we don’t even really think about them at the time.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have said enough about this book before (all in superlative terms) .
    Incidentally, a woman is expected to die soon in this book. If any reader is distressed at this, let me assure him that she does not die. Twenty years later, she is mentioned as being alive and well and married in another book by Carr (Panic in Box C).

  3. Colin says:

    I read this again myself over Christmas, as I said I would in a previous conversation. Did you read it over the holidays yourself? A “Carr for Christmas” is a little tradition I’ve developed and I genuinely look forward to it as it’s such a good time of year to delve into his world. I’d forgotten a good deal (well, most really) of the plot of course but I did recall that my earlier experience of the book had left me feeling a little dissatisfied. As I went through it again over the holidays, I found myself wondering what in God’s name I’d been dissatisfied with – I absolutely loved it.

    The atmosphere is beautifully conveyed and the characterization, so important here in establishing motives, is very well drawn. Aside from the impossible crimes included, the allusions to vampirism and the strong sense of time and place hit just the right note. I’ll have to revisit a few other Carr stories (and one or two by other authors) which didn’t quite grab me in the past to see how they work now – I’m becoming increasingly convinced that one’s mood/state of mind has a big part to play in determining how one reacts to a story in certain circumstances.

    I’m glad you brought up Carr’s progressive and non-judgmental attitude towards one of the characters as it’s an aspect that really stood out for me too. It certainly added a layer of realism to a tale which has more than its fair share of fantastical allusions, and it humanized Fell too. This kind of thing elevates the quality of the writing enormously in my opinion and is streets ahead of the type of vague priggishness to be found in Christie’s work from time to time – I honestly find I’m becoming less and less enamored of her as the years roll by.

    I’ve never heard any of those radio adaptations and they sound as though they might be a lot of fun. It’s a real shame the BBC has never seen fit to issue a nice CD box containing the full series – I’d buy it in a shot.

    • Yes, like you I read it over Christmas and was utterly entranced. I had read it in the mid 80s in an Italian translation that I was so pleased to find at the time but it was a hardback omnibus with 3 other books so a bit unwieldy to hold, whicb may have influenced me (weird, I know – as you say, a mood thing). But I loved how the Fay Seton character is developed and the eerie atmosphere both in the New Forest and in pre-war France. I do have all the BBC radio adaptations and they are great fun.

      • Colin says:

        Entranced is close enough to I felt too. I also liked the way Hammond, the point of view character, came across. Those characters don’t always work as well in Carr’s writing but Hammond felt fully rounded and behaved as a proper mensch at the end.

        • Yes, the ending is really affecting – but I suspect that, deep down, that is what I so enjoy about Carr – I love the ingenious plotting, the humour and the heavy atmospherics, but it that deeply Romantic sensibility – and as you say, it is noticeably absent from the likes of Christie. Yes, it is inherently conservative but with Carr at least it never feels patrician – I think Douglas Greene used the phrase ‘Baghdad on the Thames’ and I think it sums it up very nicely.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, Greene’s phrase catches the feel pretty well.
            There certainly is a conservative quality to Carr’s writing but it never comes across as the least bit superior to me and is rarely as downright offensive as could be the case with some other writers. Perhaps it’s that undercurrent of romanticism you mention – you need a reasonably open attitude to human nature to get that across successfully and I think much of Carr’s writing does so.

          • I agree – Carr had a decidedly quirky, very ‘personal’ approach (or shall we say, interpretation) when it came to law and order, with villains often getting away with it in fact (see The Crooked Hinge for instance) – he loved the past and its rich traditions, but wasn;t especially impressed woth lords and ladies thankfully! This makes him feel more modern to me, though not everyone finds his humour as pleasing as I know I do 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Having read a fair chunk of his work now, I think Carr was full of contradictions in many ways, and I like that. Again, I see more of a real person there – rigidly consistent philosophies are always a little dull and overly considered in my opinion.

          • Yes, and I do think that is what we would equate wih a more modern viewpoint and I agree that his better work usually reflects this (also true of She Died A Lady, a truly masterful performance). It may also be the case that because Carr was an Anglo-phile but still an ‘outisder’ that this helped giving a more nuanced view. But he was a damn good storyteller too 🙂

          • Colin says:

            When I read She Died a Lady a few years ago I was blown away by how good it was – first rate storytelling and characterization.

          • I had the exact same experience – a title that didn’t seem to rank in most histories of the genre but which is just utterly superb, never puts a foot wrong as just right up there with the best the genre can get in my view – and I really don;t think I’m over-selling it. The Puzzle Doctor pretty much nails it in his review over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, where he calls it ‘… one of the most overlooked of the classic mysteries.’

  4. I’ve always had West in mind as Merrivale personally – or maybe Colin Baker. Baffles me why there’s never been a television series for either Fell or HM.

    Oh, and completely agree. A great book and a must read.

  5. Sarah says:

    I’m a big fan of audio books, dramatisations etc. I might see if I can get hold of these.

  6. Extremely interesting. I’ve never read this one, obviously I must catch up soon. I’d also love to hear those BBC versions. Hope they come up with CDs soon…

  7. realthog says:

    Yep: must reread this soon! Many thanks for the reminder.

  8. TomCat says:

    You know, re-reading a vintage JDC mystery is actually a pretty good idea and He Who Whispers is deserving of every piece of praise it gets. I wonder if The Judas Window will hold up to re-reading.

    It’s interesting to see how He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady, Till Death Do Us Part and The Emperor’s Snuff-Box have overtaken The Hollow Man, The Judas Window, The Crooked Hinge and The Peacock Feather Murders as the new favorites of this period. I guess it shows that today’s crime readers prefer and appreciate novels that balance plot with characters, instead of going all-in on from one side.

    • Thanks for that TC, I agree that the ‘new’ favourites have the advantage of seeming fresher because they are discussed less often but also because maybe the characters might seem fresher or more modern and the plots less spectacular but also less ‘mechanical’ – this is of course a gross oversimplifications on my part and may in part be complete nonsense …
      PS I still think Judas Window holds up incredibly well!

      • TomCat says:

        I’m currently torn between The Judas Window and In Spite of Thunder, which was published in 1960 and remember it as one of two Carr’s last really great mystery novels. The other being The Witch of the Low-Tide from 1961.

        After that the decline is just painful with such subpar titles as The House at Satan’s Elbow, Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon. I haven’t read too many postive reviews of Papa Là-Bas and The Hungry Goblin.

        • Well TC, much as I adore Carr, there is no denying The Hungry Goblin is a very weak book – but he was very ill by that point. I actually remember liking The House at Satan’s Elbow and especially Panic in Box C a lot when I first read them – but yes, it’s been a while (very, very early in my Carr reading in fact, circa 1984). I believe the critical consensus is probably behind you with The Witch of the Low-Tide as a strong late title.

        • I haven’t read THUNDER in a few year actually – JUDAS is, and forever will be, a classic of its kind – just fantastically good really.

        • Colin says:

          I read Papa Là-Bas about 4 years ago or so and thought it was OK, not great or especially memorable but not a real dud either.

          • I have only read that one in Italian actually, so must try and get an original edition – but like you, I thought it was OK, though in my youth I remember always being a bit less keen on the historical ones, for reasons that are not not that clear to me ..

          • Colin says:

            The historicals wouldn’t be my first choice even now, and I still have a number of them unread. The Bride of Newgate didn’t do much for me and maybe put me off a little – I think Captain Cutthroat is well-thought of? That’s one I’ve yet to get round to.

          • The ones I liked the most as a youth were Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn but they are, so far, the only ones I have re-read. I have yet to read Scandal at High Chimneys. I really want to re-read Fear is the Same, published as by Carter Dickson – indeed, glad to say there are plenty to re-read with I hope undimmed pleasure.

          • Colin says:

            I still have all those, barring Scandal at High Chimneys, to read for the first time.
            Sometimes i feel I’ve read a lot of Carr and then I realize there’s still an awful lot I haven’t got to. Not a bad complaint, I think.

          • Spoiled for choice – what a nice feeling 🙂

  9. I’m with you on THE JUDAS WINDOW. Terrific book! The early John Dickson Carr (and Carter Dickson) books are a delight to read. Later books in the series fall off in quality.

    • Thanks George – the later Merrivale and Fell books don’t compare favourably, I agree, though many of the plots still work well – he seemed to be more interested in his historical mysteries.

  10. neer says:

    Sorry Sergio but I am not going to join the chorus. This book simply did not work for me. The atmosphere and the plot were good (the depiction of post-war England with the sound of bat on ball symbolising a reawakening is great) but I did not find myself getting involved with the characters.

  11. One of my favourites Sergio. when I blogged on this one I said ‘How can you not love a book in which, outrageously, the young dashing hero Miles won a Nobel Prize for History in 1938? A book where Dr Fell says
    I could credit a vampire who killed with a sword-stick. But I could not credit a vampire who pinched somebody’s brief-case containing money.’
    I loved particularly the atmosphere of post-war London, which I thought wonderfully well done. Very interesting to hear about these radio versions.
    Now you’ve made me want to re-read it right now!

  12. Yvette says:

    I don’t remember ever reading this one, Sergio. But then I don’t really remember much about the Carr books I read when I was young. However, your wonderful review has made me want to read this one for sure. I will search Abe Books for a cheap copy. 🙂 I’m really becoming an Abe Books fanatic. Ha. I love the idea of listening to the radio versions too. Never even knew that the Carr books were available in this way. There are certainly no listings of regular readings on Audible.com. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of Carr’s books were recorded for listening? I’m wondering why they’re not.

    • Thanks Yvette – hope you find this one and love it too – the radio versions are great fun, though inevotably condensed and amended to the new medium – but it is interesting that audio book versions have not been made – maybe he has not been popular enough to warrant it – that’s such a shame I hate even typing it!

  13. tracybham says:

    Well, if you and Moira both recommend it in such glowing terms AND it is set around WWII, I must find a copy. I still haven’t read any Carr, even with all your posts about the books. (At least within memory and that is all that counts.) Maybe this year I will really do it.

  14. John says:

    I “flat out love this book,” too! Easily takes the prize as my favorite of all the Dr. Fell novels. Hits all the right marks with me all of which you’ve outlined above. Richard Griffiths would’ve been wonderful as Gideon Fell. That’s how I envision him when I see him.

  15. lesblatt says:

    I agree with everything you have said about “He Who Whispers,” Sergio. It really is one of Carr’s best. I’m starting to think it’s a better recommendation for readers new to Carr than “The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins,” which is still very high on my list, as is “The Judas Window.” I also just finished re-reading “She Died a Lady,” which is another first-rate book moving up on my personal Carr popularity index. So many choices…

  16. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have mentioned above that a woman not expected to survive long is shown alive and well 20 years later in Panic In Box C.
    Here is another interesting information. A character in The Burning Court (whose events take place in 1929) is not expected to survive long if the epilogue is to be believed. But there is a brief reference to him in Panic In Box C indicating that he is alive and well even after 36 years !

    • I must c;ear;y re-read Court and Box C Santosh! One does start to get the impression that Carr had either recently been re-reading his earlier books or was looking at looming retirement 🙂

  17. Hi Sergio, it’s nice to see you so engaged with John Dickson Carr’s work. To paraphrase what you said to Tracy, I have to stop denying myself these great treats. You know what, I’ll pick up one of his novels, read it, and surprise you with a review. There’s my resolution for 2015!

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