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This nice, tight thriller has much to recommend it. Author Alex North juggles several themes, and he does a right fine job of keeping all the balls in the air: a non-practicing alcoholic detective whose demons he barely manages to turn aside; a grieving single father who does not know how to communicate with his young son; a serial killer of children who hungers for his next victim; a vulnerable child; a child who was abducted and who has not yet been found.
Dramatis personae: Detective Inspector Pete Willis, divorced, haunted by his marital failure and by the son he was not able to watch grow up, alcoholic, non-practicing, tempted nightly to drink by his current investigation of an abducted child and by his memories of five children who had been abducted by a serial killer, Frank Carter, twenty years in the past; Frank Carter, the serial child killer whom Pete helped put into prison, and whose murders still haunt Pete's life, and who lured his victims by whispering promises to them; Norman Collins, creepy man who seems entirely too interested in the search for a missing boy; Detective Inspector Amanda Beck, young, trying to prove herself as she takes on the search for a missing boy and realizes that the first forty-eight hours are most crucial; Tom Kennedy, troubled single father whose wife has died, writes novels but has writer's block, who cannot seem to reach his son Jake in order to guide his through their grief; Jake Kennedy, six years old, who has moved with his father to a new town and a new school, who talks to an imaginary playmate, who found his mother's dead body the previous year; Neil Spencer, recently abducted child, the focus of intense policework; Tony Smith, child abducted by Frank Carter twenty years before and still not found.
North's novel oscillates between a first-person and a limited third-person narrative voice. Tom Kennedy, the first-person narrator, is a novelist who is tormented by the memory of his recently dead wife, and by his inability to enter the psyche of and mentor his distant six-year-old son. His son's distance from him places the son, Jake, in a vulnerable position Tom cannot even really know of, but we know: a serial killer at large preys on children who are somehow alone, somehow needing more than their home and school lives have to offer. The killer lures the children away by whispering promises to them.
The limited third-person perspectives enable us to follow the police procedure for a missing-person search—a six-year-old child has been abducted. Additional perspectives let us catch glimpses of Jake's mind, and glimpses, as well, into the mind of the serial killer as he hunts his latest victim. North is skillful in his use of narrative technique to create the feel of the thriller. In addition to the hunt for the killer, other, quieter hunts take place, and they provide narrative tensions that parallel the manhunt. Jake, for instance, speaks to invisible companions who seem to know something about the serial killings. Tom is drawn to Amanda, another parent at his son's school. Perhaps she will eventually help rest his demons. Besides his loss of his wife and his worry about his son, he recalls his father's last day with the family, during which the drunken man threw a glass that narrowly missed his wife. In another scene, we find out that the original serial killer from twenty years before had a son and a wife, both of whom he abused. Echoes of fathers' and sons' lives transmit through the narrative. Following the separate stories of these relationships enables the novel to explore parenting and its effects on the psyche in much more depth than the run-of-the mill mystery novel allows. That fact places the present novel in an echelon above the usual in its genre.
Note: The Corpse Moth that North uses as a recurrent image in THE WHISPER MAN may not be quite an accurate one. England, where North makes his home, is also home to the Purple Emperor, a handsome butterfly that really is attracted to rotting flesh. However, our novel has an American setting, and no such butterfly. It is possible that North is thinking of the central, spooky image in Thomas Harris' 1988 thriller SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the Death's Head Hawk Moth, which the serial killer in that novel left as his calling card.
§ Cathy Downs is professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and freshman composition. She remains a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, August 2019
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