Thursday, 12 December 2013

He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr

published 1946









As the train whipped past the platform, gathering speed, Miles stood with his face against the glass of the doors. Half a dozen persons straggled towards the way out. Dingy overhead lights swung with the wind which billowed through this stale-smelling cavern. He clearly saw Fay – in an open tweed coat and black beret, with the same blank, miserable, tortured look on her face – walking towards the way out as the train bore him past into the tunnel.

[He follows her to her home] Miles stood motionless for a second or two, watching out of the corner of his eye that blurred shadow moving on the wall, before he turned the knob. The door was not locked. He opened it. Fay Seton, still in the tweed coat over her dove-grey dress, stood in front of a chest of drawers looking round inquiringly. Her expression was placid, not even very interested, until she saw who the newcomer was. Then she gave a smothered cry.


observations: My goodness John Dickson Carr could write a book that would keep you reading. They are short and to the point, and if you think a chapter is fading away with people saying let’s go home, or let’s go to bed, you can be sure it will end with a smothered cry, or ‘It was the sound of a pistol-shot.’

He specialized in locked-room mysteries, and made no pretence that there was anything real about these murder methods, but his characters were fun and amusing, and the puzzles were great. This one is set in London in 1945, but looking back at a death in France in 1939. The London details are wonderful: the underground train goes through Strand, a station that is now only a ghost, and there is a restaurant upstairs at Waterloo station – which very recently became true again.

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 recently rather cheekily suggested on the Guardian Books Blog that JD Carr wished he could write more openly about sex, and if he’d been writing in these more permissive times he would be writing openly sexy thrillers. The sex is hidden away in his books, just popping up now and again in a weird and surprising way. By the standards of his time, he had some quite refreshing women characters, straightforwardly sexy and often with jobs and careers, and wearing trousers – see a very good example in this blog entry.

The picture is from Dovima is devine.

Another John Dickson Carr book here.

10 comments:

  1. I came here to read your review of one of my favortie Carr novels when I saw a link on someone else's blog. Had no idea that the name of the blog was literal! This is a hysterical idea for a blog. You'd have a field day with some of the books I read. Last one I read had a vertable catalog of clothes for ever character. I pretty much despise wardrobe updates in any book unless the clothes have a purpose in the story. As you know this happens a lot in mystery novels so I can excuse it sometimes. But most of the time I don't care at all what the characters are wearing evn if someimes it reveas a bit about their personality. I did, however, finally learn what plus fours are just this year after reading the term repeatedly for over thrity years!

    Related to your observation about the bawdiness of Carr's writing -- in one of his novels under the Carter Dickson pseudonym he implies that a man has called a woman a very dirty word. When I read it I gasped and laughed uproariously. Wish I could quote you the line, but I do know it was one of the early Carter Dickson books written in the 30s. I think you're right -- if Carr were still around his books would be more than just a little spicy.

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    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting John - it's nice to hear from someone who is, like me, such a fan of John Dickson Carr. The world would be a poorer place without his backlist! Naturally (given my blog) I am of the opinion that clothes descriptions do earn their place in books, but even I can sometimes think there's too much detail. But I continue to look for meaning in the wardrobe....

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  2. I have probably said this before, but I have got to read some books by John Dickson Carr. I guess the idea of locked room mysteries always put me off, but I also read so much praise for his books. Great post.

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    1. They are short and very readable, so you should give them a try....

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  3. I expect I will read some more Carr this year. I admire that he created interesting unique characters as much as locked room mysteries far beyond my ability to solve them.

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    1. Yes Bill - he churned them out, but they were far from pot-boilers, and as you say, good on characters, and also very funny at times.

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  4. Ought to try something by him but probably won't - my loss. Lovely looking lady in the photo, but I'm intimidated by the scary eyebrows......a couple of fat caterpillars IMO

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    1. Back in fashion, though, the top model of the moment has them. If you didn't have the embargo and the huge TBR pile I'd say give JD Carr a go, but you can probably live without him....

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  5. Carr was proud of his female characters apparently, but most critics have not been so impressed. I think their depiction is more complex than Carr is sometimes given credit for. The fact that many of them seem obviously to match Carr's romantic taste in women has probably alienated a few critics.

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    1. I totally agree - I think Carr's women are much better and more real than those of most of his male contemporaries, and he comes over as someone who really likes women.

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