‘The Whisper Man’: A kidnapping tale that will hold you captive

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"The Whisper Man," Alex North's chilling novel of child abduction, murder and ghostly apparition, begins in the English village of Featherbank with the snatching of a young boy. The deed is described from the point of view of the perpetrator (we only know that it is a man). This is scarcely a clue, but it does spawn a feeling of uneasiness about every male who shows up in the pages of this harrowing book.

The victim is Neil Spencer, the 6-year-old son of divorced, inattentive parents who don't notice the boy's absence for well over an hour. Inspector Amanda Beck is put on the case and after more time is lost _ two days, in fact _ Neil's mother remembers that her son had told her that "a monster" had been whispering to him in the night outside his window. It is a most troubling development as it echoes the serial abductions and murders committed by one Frank Carter some 20 years earlier. But Carter, dubbed the Whisper Man because he lured his victims away with cajoling whispers, is in prison. The case was cracked by DI Pete Willis after Carter's wife, long terrorized by her husband, finally alerted the detective to the existence of a horrifying extension to the house _ a veritable prison and morgue. Her husband, who had violently abused both her and their son, had murdered at least five children.

The case has haunted Pete, not only in its grisliness and cruelty, but also because he was never able to find the body of the fifth child. That lack of resolution has created further anguish for the parents and has made Pete suspect that Carter had an accomplice. He has visited the man in prison several times, hoping he would let something drop, but instead he has been treated to Carter's triumphal gloating. Pete, now 56 and a recovering alcoholic, is called in on the new case, and demons of the past return to torture his soul and exacerbate his craving for drink.

Meanwhile, we have made the acquaintance of Tom Kennedy and his 7-year-old son, Jake. Tom loves the boy dearly, but is overwhelmed and feels himself to be desperately inadequate as a father. He is bedeviled by the memory of his own father and the man's last violent act before he left Tom and his mother to disappear from their life. If the role of father never came easily to Tom, matters have become nigh impossible in the past 10 months since Tom's wife and Jake's mother, Rebecca, died. Her death was traumatic for Jake, in particular, who found her lifeless body at the foot of the stairs. Jake has become incommunicative, withdrawn and reluctant to play with his peers, spending hours drawing. The cause of Rebecca's death remains a mystery to both Jake and the reader for much of the book, thus contributing its own measure of uncertainty, suspicion and menace.

In order to make a fresh start, Tom and Jake have moved. The new house is an old one, its cockeyed exterior reminding Tom of "a beaten face, with an eye pushed up over a badly bruised cheek, the skull injured and lopsided." He learns later that it was known in the village as the "scary house," which isn't good news. Most unsettling is that Jake has been talking to someone who is invisible and inaudible to everyone else. This is a little girl with messy hair, a comfort to Jake and a font of advice and obscure warnings. But who is she? Or, more to the point, what is she? Is she a supernatural entity or a creature of Jake's imagination? Who or whatever she is, Tom does not like this at all, nor does he like Jake's reference to "the boy in the floor."

Worse things lie ahead _ whisperings in the night, sinister butterflies, a prowler, a dead body, another dead body _ but we'll have to leave matters right there, except to say that a number of plot twists send the book into territory we had not foreseen. Indeed, the novel picks up some depth in its treatment of difficult, sometimes toxic relationships between fathers and sons. Eventually, its mysterious elements do converge and slot together _ though not without a good deal of assistance from coincidence and the paranormal. That, however, does not take away from the story's galvanic suspense.

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