Title: The Whisperer
Author: Donato Carrisi
Translated by: Shaun Whiteside
Published: First published in 2009 in Italian. My edition published 05 January 2012
Publisher: Mulholland Books, and imprint of Little, Brown
Genre: crime and mystery
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 8/10
Six severed arms are found buried in a circle in a forest. Five of the arms were surgically cut from missing girls, aged 7 to 13. The sixth arm is from a mystery child, yet to be reported missing. A special investigative team, guided by highly intuitive criminologist Dr Goran Gavila, is put in charge of the case. They also recruit Mila Vasquez, an investigator who has become well-known for her incredible skill in finding missing persons.
Soon after, a man is caught with the body of the first missing child in the boot of his car, and it looks like the case will come to a swift, if tragic ending. But it soon becomes clear that the discovery of this body was no accident; it was organised by the true killer, who remains unknown. In fact it’s just the first of a series of meticulously, almost presciently planned reveals in which a murderous mastermind releases the corpses of his young victims. When the investigators find the bodies, they never seem to find anything to help them track down the killer. Instead the carefully thought out placement of each body leads to the exposure of even more horrific crimes committed by other people. The investigation becomes more than just a study in the evil of one man – it exposes myriad monsters, not to mention the indifference of ordinary people, which allows atrocities to occur.
This unusual pattern makes The Whisperer more substantial than your typical serial killer story and it’s already been successful among both readers and critics. Originally published in 2009 in Italian, The Whisperer has won five international literary prizes, become a bestseller in Europe and been translated into several languages. I’m actually wary of bestsellers because they tend to be disappointing (overhyped and too commercial), but in this case the novel has trustworthy credentials. Great novels about serial killers should leave you with a mixture of shock and fascination and The Whisperer keeps you hooked with a pitch perfect blend. The villain is as smart, efficient and cruel as John Doe from Se7en. His killings are like a grotesque work of art. The extent of the killer’s planning alone unnerves me. In contrast, the crimes they point to are less sophisticated – the product of uncontrolled urges to abuse and hurt others, particularly children. In fact, it’s almost always children who are the victims in this novel. The irony is that the person who kidnapped six children and cut off their arms is also exposing other crimes against children, although you never get the impression that he does so because he somehow feels sorry for them. It’s pretty twisted, but hey, that’s what makes serial killers so compelling.
Another drawcard is the technical aspects of the novel. Carrisi studied law and criminology and his novel details some of the investigative theories and forensic techniques used in such cases, something I always find interesting. Here Mila acts as the reader’s gateway into the technical side of things. Because she hasn’t worked on murder investigations before, other characters frequently explain their methods to her and thus to the reader as well. It’s a useful plot device.
The novel is not without its flaws though. There are a few little continuity errors and sometimes characters behave in somewhat unlikely ways. None of the primary characters are particularly engaging, including the talented protagonists Mila and Goran. Most of the novel is written from their shifting perspectives and they both have some deep-set personal problems that make them aloof and mysterious, but in a way that’s a bit dull. I never really warmed to either, although it’s possible that this is intentional given that they are rather cold people. Mila also has this irritating habit of going off on her own little searches without telling the rest of the team. I assume she does this because she’s a loner who isn’t used to working with others, but it also strikes me as too irresponsible.
Then there’s a mythical aspect to the story that annoyed me at first, such as the use of a psychic in the investigation, and an overabundance of pointless speculation about God and the devil. However by the time I’d gotten to the ending, I’d mostly just accepted this pseudo-fantasy trend, largely because some of it was deeply disturbing and as a result I couldn’t help but take it more seriously. In fact, there was quite a lot about the novel that I found disturbing, particularly towards the end. Crime and mystery novels about serial killers are typically about horrific acts, but don’t normally fall into the horror genre because the story is about the investigation rather than the victims or murderers, and you don’t necessarily witness the actual killing. It’s the same here, but some of the secrets that are uncovered were so disturbing that I found myself far more unsettled than when reading some stories whose main purpose is to scare. In a masochistic paradox, I also couldn’t put the damn thing down. I ended up finishing the novel in a binge-read that ended just before 5am. It might have been better if it’d lasted longer, because I couldn’t sleep anyway. I just lay there thinking about the book, listening for suspicious noises and waiting anxiously for the sun to come up.
I’d love to talk about the reasons why I found this book so compelling and unnerving, but of course that would ruin it. I recommend that you find out for yourself, especially if you’re a fan of crime fiction.