I bring you a book today that has been getting a lot of attention, but I was a bit slow catching on. Well, I finally got around to reading it!
The Whisper Man by Alex North
THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER, RICHARD & JUDY PICK & GUARDIAN BOOKS OF THE YEAR, LONGLISTED FOR THE THEAKSTON CRIME NOVEL OF THE YEAR AWARD
The gripping thriller that will keep you turning the pages all night long . . .
‘An ambitious, deeply satisfying thriller – a seamless blend of Harlan Coben, Stephen King, and Thomas Harris’ A J Finn, bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
If you leave a door half-open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken . . .
Fifteen years ago, a serial killer known only as ‘The Whisper Man’ wreaked havoc on the sleepy village of Featherbank.
But with the killer behind bars, the village is now a safe haven for Tom and his young son Jake to make a fresh start.
Until another boy goes missing. It feels like history is repeating itself.
Could the killer still be out there – and can Tom protect his son from becoming the next victim?
‘THE BEST CRIME NOVEL OF THE DECADE’ Steve Cavanagh, bestselling author of Twisted
‘A true skin-crawler’ Guardian
‘Shades of Thomas Harris and Stephen King but brilliant in its own right’ C. J. Tudor, bestselling author of The Chalk Man
‘This flawlessly plotted thriller absolutely deserves to be shouted about’ Sunday Mirror
‘More than just superbly creepy, this beautifully written thriller might just break your heart a little, too’ Heat
About the author:
Alex North was born in Leeds, England, where he now lives with his wife and son. The Whisper Man was inspired by North’s own little boy, who mentioned one day that he was playing with “the boy in the floor.” Alex North is a British crime writer who has previously published under another name.
Here an interesting interview with the author:
I thank NetGalley and Penguin UK-Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I confess this novel got buried on my e-reader and despite the good reviews I have read and the many times I’ve seen it mentioned since its publication, it kept being knocked down by reviewing commitments and general lack of attention. After coming up as a recommendation in another article right as I finished a book I was reading, I decided its time had come. And? It kept me reading, and I enjoyed many aspects of it, although some worked slightly less well for me, but it has much to recommend it.
I hadn’t come across Alex North before, although that is not surprising as this seemed to be his first novel. As his biography explains, though, he had published a number of books under a different name before (it wasn’t hard to find this is Steve Mosby), but I hadn’t read any of those either. I don’t know if this marked a change of direction or it is part of a marketing campaign, but, in any case, it seems to have worked.
The description provides the gist of the action. We are in a small village where terrible things had happened many years back. The child killer (not molester, let me clarify that) is now behind bars, but another child goes missing. As you can probably imagine, the new police team investigating are drawn to check on the old case, and Pete, the detective who was almost destroyed by that case —which had some loose threads still pending— becomes once more entangled in it. But this is not a straightforward police procedural. It is a bit of a mixed bag. There is the mystery element (as we don’t know who the culprit is but are given a number of clues, red herrings, and repeatedly sent down the wrong path along the way); it also has aspects more typical of a thriller than of a classical mystery (the grisly nature of the crimes, the teasing serial killer, the different points of view, including also snippets from the perpetrator); there are paranormal elements (the young child at the centre of the story, Jake, has an imaginary friend who seems to know a lot about the case) and at times it also veers towards horror; and there is plenty of attention paid to the psychology and state of mind of some of the protagonists, particularly Tom, Jake’s father, traumatised by the sudden death of his wife and having to look after a young child on his own, Jake himself, also showing evident signs of trauma and not coping particularly well with his grief, and Pete, the detective who caught the previous killer, who struggles to keep the ghosts of his past at bay.
As I said that some aspects of the book did not fully work for me, I thought I might as well say which ones right now, although I’ll try to avoid any spoilers. I’ve just mentioned how much attention the book pays some of the characters and their psychological difficulties. I enjoyed this but was quite puzzled that nobody ever mentions the possibility of getting help. After all, we have a policeman whose work would have been supervised, and a young child going to school, presenting with bizarre behaviour and evidently struggling. I know this is a novel, but it does require quite a degree of suspension of disbelief to imagine that nobody would have picked up on that and suggested a psychological evaluation or some therapy. The novel feels a bit timeless (and it did remind me of some of Stephen King’s novels set on small towns, usually many years back), but there are dates mentioned, and the action is not set sufficiently far back in the past to justify that. Talking about the setting, one of the other things that bothered me was that I had no real sense of where we were supposed to be. Many of the minor characters and locations felt standard, and although the house Tom and Jake move into seems to have a defined personality, the rest of the place is a bit of a mixed bag. The police department seems rather large for a sleepy village; there are parts of the place that are half abandoned and less than savoury (as if we were in the outskirts of a big city), with known drug dealers and criminals tracked by the police as well; and some of the action fits in better with a rundown city than the village suggested. The fact that some aspects of the story reminded me of the typical book or movie about an urban legend (down to the nursery rhyme or playschool song) contributed to that feeling and gave the story a touch of the dark fairy tale. There were some other inconsistencies I won’t mention, as those might easily be explained away, and I don’t think will curtail the enjoyment of most readers.
Apart from the investigation and the mystery side of things, the novel also explores grief and trauma (Jake shows signs of PTSD, and so do his father and Pete), relationships between fathers and sons, and legacy. How much do our childhood experiences influence our adult behaviour? It also looks at memory and the way our minds are not always reliable witnesses of what happened.
I have mentioned the main characters, but there are others like the main investigator (whom I quite liked but didn’t get to know too well, although I understand she plays a bigger part in the next novel by the same author), one of the mothers at Jake’s new school, the serial killer, of course… The story is narrated in the first person by Tom, who is, after all, a writer, but there are also chapters narrated in the third person by other characters, including Jake, Pete, the new detective, and the perpetrator (who only appears a few times, and those chapters do help provide some clues as to motivation). I sympathised with Tom, who had a hard time of life in general, liked Jake (and his invisible friend). I also empathised with Pete but I wouldn’t say I liked him. Although there is something generic about the characters (most readers of the genre will have met other characters in similar circumstances before), I thought the author did a good job of getting inside their heads, but it is true that this slows down the action somehow and might not work for people looking for a page-turner. People who don’t like first-person narration might not appreciate Tom’s narrative voice, although it does make sense in the context of the book, and there are a few instances when it takes on an omniscient quality. As for the third person narratives, each chapter is told from one distinct point of view, and readers don’t need to worry about getting confused, though I recommend paying close attention to the action. The original serial killer didn’t impress me in particular (for me, it lacked something to make him distinct enough. He seems just thoroughly evil), and I found the new killer more interesting.
The writing is fluid, although, as I said, some readers might not appreciate the emphasis on the psychology of the characters and their obsessive thoughts and guilty feelings. There are some detailed descriptions of some of the objects and locations but this does not apply to the actual murders. The book is not gore, especially considering the topic. There are some violence and blood, but this does not relate to the main crimes an does not involve the children. I think people who worry about explicit or extreme violence would not be upset by this book, but readers must remember the book is about a serial child killer, so the topic is a hard and harrowing one nonetheless.
I enjoyed the ending, which sits well with the genre, rather than being all lights and no shadows, and it sheds new light over the whole book. Some readers have complained about the paranormal aspect, feeling this is not fully explored, and I don’t disagree with the comment, although for me, it is left open and there is much that can be read between the lines.
In sum, a mystery with touches of the police procedural, the thriller, and a paranormal element, with an emphasis on the psychological angle, some pretty eerie touches (although I wouldn’t call it horror), which will grab the attention of most readers intrigued by these kinds of books. It might not work for people keen on realistic crime novels, but it is a very entertaining read, and I’m sure the author will not be short on followers.