He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr (1946)

In the summer of 1939, Howard Brooke is living just outside the town of Chartres with his wife Georgina and son Harry. Harry, who is the apple of his parent’s eyes, has become engaged to Brooke’s secretary, Fay Seton. But when sinister rumors begin to swirl about the girl, Brooke is determined to buy her off and end the engagement. Then he is found at the top of the crumbling, ancient tower where he and Fay were to meet, a fatal wound from his own sword-cane in his back, and his briefcase, containing 2,000 francs, is missing. The tower is forty feet of sheer stone face, and witnesses swear no one entered or left. Fay is seemingly the only person with a motive, but with no evidence against her, she is set free and the murder never solved. 

Six years later, Miles Hammond is invited by Dr. Gideon Fell to the first meeting of the Murder Club since the end of the war. When he arrives, he finds only two others in attendance, Barbara Morell, who states she too received an invitation from Fell, and Professor Rigaud, who has come to present an unsolved mystery to the club members. Strangely, none of the members of the Club turn up. With Hammond and Barbara as his only audience, Rigaud tells his “rather strange and sensational” tale of the murder of Howard Brooke, in which he was personally involved.

At the end of the evening Miles returns to his hotel. A message awaits him regarding a candidate he was to interview for a job as his librarian. 

‘Did the lady leave her name?’

‘Yes, sir. Miss Fay Seton.’”

From the opening chapters, in which Professor Rigaud tells his tale of murder, I was truly mesmerized. The atmosphere, evocative detail, and character reactions came together very effectively, providing all the tension and suspense I needed to kept me turning one page after another. 

There are no thrills, no overt humor, the tone is somber, and Dr. Gideon Fell is at his most restrained. Surprisingly for Carr, this was more about the characters, most notably Fay Seton, and the impact that Fay has on them. I believe that the characters, and the relationships between them, are actually the strongest element of the story. 

The mystery is a sound one. An impossible crime without gimmicks, and a solution, that once it’s laid before you, will blow you away with its simplicity. But for one little issue, it’s hard to find much to criticize. And that issue is the culprit, who’s identity Carr made much too clear from the outset. Mind you, I’m not disappointed. I’m never disappointed when I can guess whodunit, nor does it spoil the story for me. It’s just rare that it happens for me with Carr.

He Who Whispers is considered to be, by many, Carr’s single best work. I haven’t read all of Carr, but I have read all of the Gideon Fell series, up to and including HWW. While this is a wonderful book, there are several others (to be named later) that I personally would rank in my top ten Fells, above HWW.

But, the thing about this book is, outside of the mystery, how moving it is. And that is what makes it a very compelling, entertaining, and ultimately, satisfyingly read.

My Judgment – 4.5/5

Prior Rulings – TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time, Ben @ The Green Capsule, Sergio @ Bloody Murder, Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza – 2020 – Vintage Mystery Extravaganza: Commandments/Rules/Common Devices – #2 All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

8 thoughts on “He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr (1946)

    1. I’m just a very suspicious person 🤣. Plus, have you read HWW? There’s just one interaction that’s a dead giveaway.

      I just started Crofts’ Sir McGill last night, and I know that I know who did it…find out today🤣🤣🤣

      1. I haven’t read that Carr title, but I know what you mean when a writer includes a comment or event which makes the identity of the killer too obvious. It happened to me with Rutland’s first novel at the hydro. But you are just too good at solving mystery novels!

      2. Maybe I should hire myself out as a sort of a detective to authors before they publish. My card could say “I can solve that mystery in 2 chapters” or “Save yourself the pain of those poor reviews.” A literary Miss Silver—I even knit! Just don’t expect me to cough and where that velvet band in my hair😳.

  1. There’s an interaction here with Fell that is such a glorious Carrian trick — I knew damn well he was telling me something significant and yet managed to stop my brain before it had a chance to connect the dots. So I know what you mean about things jumping out at you. Sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

    The impossible crime is…fine, but I had a solution I liked more. It plays well into the overall scheme, though. And the final line is sort of magnificent and awful and empowering and heartbreaking all at once. A good book, great in some regards, but I still don’t think it’d make my top 20 Carrs. Not today, anyway.

    1. The first impossible crime was, as you say, “fine”. The second though, that was diabolical. It was one that left me wondering about the workings of Carr’s mind!

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