I only tried Carlon’s work for the first time last November, with her earlier title The Running Woman (1966). This was an unusual story with rumour fuelling wrongful accusations of murder against the protagonist. Yet I would say today’s read is an even stronger work, with atmosphere, characters and plotting all coming together very successfully.
In some ways this story reminded me of Hilda Lawrence’s Composition for Four Hands (1949), as both stories have a paralysed female protagonist, who is unable to speak or move. However Carlon’s is definitely the better read. So on to the story…
Sarah Oatland has suffered a stroke, leaving her paralysed and unable to speak and the opening pages reveal to us her situation in more detail; her well-meaning but rather annoying nurse, Cornelia Bragg, as well as Sarah’s unpleasant niece, Gwenyth who is only interested in the money and property she will inherit if Sarah dies. In fact Gwenyth has gone as far as renting out parts of her aunt’s home, to a Josie Abcon and her daughter Rose, as well as to a Valma and Murray Phipp. From where Sarah’s bed is positioned she can hear conversations held in the room below hers, a room now occupied by the Phipps and she is shocked when she hears their plans to bump off Valma’s step father in law, Roderick Palmer, when he comes to visit. But what can she do about this? Or rather how on earth can she tell anyone about what is being planned? How can she out manoeuvre the Phipps without jeopardising her own life? This is what the majority of the story goes on to look at, as Sarah tries to piece together what is going to happen based on the snippets of things she sees and overhears and is told.
Carlon’s book was reviewed favourably at the time and one quote which stuck with me from the New York Times, is ‘Patricia Carlon poses a stunning puzzle.’ It sort of took me by surprise as I don’t always equate domestic suspense novels with a high puzzle factor. Equally the plot of this book doesn’t pose the conventional or expected type of puzzle i.e. a dead body whose killer needs to be tracked down. Yet on reflection I think Carlon does give the reader a puzzle, as the reader is by and large only privy to what Sarah finds out, especially in the first 3/4s of the book, so how the Phipps are going to put their desires into action and how they are going to be thwarted are all things that the reader has to work out alongside Sarah. I think in some ways this is why the book focuses on a lot on audio based evidence, as most of the narrative is filtered through Sarah, albeit through indirect speech, though at times we see things from Rose’s point of view as well, who has a crucial role in the book. Additionally I would also go so far as to say that this book is a variant on the inverted mystery, with the difficulty being that the only person who is aware of the approaching crime is unable to reveal it. More importantly the inverted mystery elements do not affect the puzzle aspects as they do not hinge upon whodunit, as that answer is supplied to us very early on.
So, in comparison to The Running Woman, the plotting is not only superior in The Whispering Wall, but the characterisation is as well. Despite being paralysed Sarah is a very proactive protagonist and you immediately sympathise with her from the first page, in which her memories of her earlier life highlight how intolerable her immobility is at the moment. We also see how she has to put up with the poor way those around her communicate with her or about her. A good example of this is found in a description of Bragg by Sarah:
‘a person who invaded every privacy, who knew all about you, or thought she did, and discussed that knowledge over your recumbent quiet body; who called you ‘poor dear’ and referred to you over and over again as being laid out like a fish on a slab.’
The developing alliance between Sarah and Rose is also very well depicted. Both of them for different reasons are vulnerable, which I would describe as a bond and a burden which may derail them both. I also enjoyed how not all the characters remain fixed as “bad” or “good” or “annoying” or “likeable,” as even Sarah comes to see more positive qualities in Bragg, who she really doesn’t like at the start of the book.
Whilst there is some sparring romance in the background of this book, it is suspense and tension which take centre stage, as time starts running out for Sarah and you can’t help but feel her disappointment and irritation when time and time again those around misinterpret what she is trying to get across. So based on today’s read I think my estimation of Carlon has definitely gone up and look forward to trying more by her.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Made a Best of List (One of Sue Feder’s Favourite 50 in The Essential Mystery Lists: For Readers, Collectors and Librarians ed. Roger Sobin)