Sarah Oatland is 61 and has had a stroke. She cannot walk, talk or move. She can see, hear and think but no one knows these things about her, at least at first. She is being cared for at home thanks to her wealth.During the day her bed is wheeled to the window of her large room where, due to an acoustic eccentricity of the house, she is able to hear everything said in one of the downstairs rooms. When her husband was alive they once spent the night listening to guests talk disparagingly of them but now she only hears the doctors discussing her dispiriting prognosis with her nurse. Until her parsimonious niece fills the house with paying lodgers and Sarah listens to Valma and Murray Phipps plot the death of Valma’s stepfather so they can inherit his money. Sarah’s growing terror at being able to do nothing, literally, in the face of the seemingly inevitable murder is palpable.
Of course there’s a noticeable lack of technology and twitter has only one meaning but these small details aside there is nothing much to place this tale in any specific time. Equally, no location external to the house gains any foothold in the reader’s imagination. This novel is all about what happens inside the house. It seems impossible that such a richly drawn story progresses forward almost entirely based on what an immobile woman hears but it is a testament to Carlon’s writing skill that such a narrow perspective provides a more thoroughly gripping read than many of today’s much-hyped blockbusters. This is a genuinely suspenseful domestic setting and seemed to me to be as scary today as it would have been on publication.
One of the reasons I think the book is so successful is that the characters are all very ordinary. Even the would-be killers are not knife-wielding psychopaths or of a similar ‘outlier’ personality that would make it possible to believe such sinister behaviour only goes on in books. They are just greedy and impatient and not very nice (obviously given they are plotting the murder of a harmless old man) but they are quite normal. Sarah’s frustrations and limitations are depicted realistically too – she cries and gets upset as you would in such circumstances – but her innate intelligence shines through and the reader can enjoy being inside Sarah’s head even while being increasingly worried for her health and well-being. There are, eventually, couple of characters who cotton on to the fact Sarah knows what is going on and try to help her communicate and the way everyone reacts to Sarah’s changing circumstances – the realisation that she is not just a fish on a slab – is another subtly drawn standout feature of the novel.
If you are looking for a timeless tale of how an insular environment can create a truly suspense-filled experience THE WHISPERING WALL is highly recommended. In fact my only gripe is how little is known about this author in her home country. Given the quality of this book and the fact that it stands up so well nearly 50 years after being released it is galling to realise that Patricia Carlon is virtually unknown here and that most of her novels have still never been published in this country. Shame on us.
I chose this book as my contribution to this month’s crime classics challenge hosted at Past Offences. Each month participants read a book published or watch a movie released in the nominated year which this time around was 1969.