Genres Bleed in New North Thriller
If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whisper spoken…
If you’re lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you.
One of the quotes for Alex North’s THE WHISPER MAN calls it a “seamless blend of Harlan Coben, Stephen King, and Thomas Harris.” I’d say that’s just about right.
Novelist Tom Kennedy and his seven-year-old son Jake are both still grieving the death of the boy’s mother, Rebecca. Everything about the house reminds Tom of her, and Jake is having trouble, too—keeping to himself, talking to imaginary friends. It’s clear they have to move, to make a fresh start. It’s less clear that the new house in their new town of Featherbank will be able to provide that, however.
Twenty years ago, a terrible series of crimes took place in Featherbank. Young children disappeared, lured out by someone whispering at their window at night, their bodies found later. To everyone’s relief, the killer was arrested and convicted and has been locked away in prison ever since, but that relief has recently ended. Another child has disappeared, and the hunt must begin again. It’s led by two detectives, a man and a woman, each with something to prove, ghosts to exorcise, especially the man, Pete Willis, who led the first hunt and who is the only person the convicted killer will talk to.
As the search intensifies, the detectives’ paths cross with those of Tom and Jake, and then again, and then again. There is a connection here, but nobody can figure out what it is. Until they do. And then Jake hears a whisper at the window….
Where it leads him, and everybody else, is a place that nobody could possibly expect, including the reader. THE WHISPER MAN is a terrifying story in itself, but it’s also a great deal more than that. Its themes go much deeper, to become a story about fathers and sons, their complicated relationships, and how far each will go to protect (and sometimes punish) the other. It’s about the boy within the man, and the man within the boy.
How did Alex North come up with this idea?
“When I first started thinking about the book all I really knew was that I was going to write about fathers and sons. My own son was five or six at the time, and I wanted to explore—and exaggerate, of course!—aspects of our relationship, along with my own thoughts and feelings about parenthood.
“The story began to click into place one day after we’d moved into a new house. I was in the kitchen and my son was in the front room messing around with his toys. At one point, I went through and asked what he was doing, and he told me he was ‘playing with the boy in the floor.’ Which obviously gave me a slight chill. But I’ve always been fascinated by the creepy things children say. There are websites and forums devoted to stories of them—like a family driving past a graveyard and the kid innocently says ‘that’s where I used to live.’ I think there’s something uniquely scary about things like that coming from a child.
“Fortunately, ‘the boy in the floor’ only paid us the briefest of visits, but
I realized that the little boy in my book was going to have imaginary friends, too, and that some of them might be quite sinister. The story developed gradually from there.
“There’s no reason why a serial killer novel can’t have deeper themes, and I like the idea of using the mode as a metaphor for exploring ideas. A monster in a horror film is frequently far more than just a physical threat; it can represent something else—whether that’s fear, trauma, an exploration of social norms and expectations, or something else altogether. With THE WHISPER MAN, it probably helps that my first impulse was to write about fathers and sons, and so the serial killer element was brought in to serve that, rather than the other way round, but I think serial killer stories—and crime fiction as a whole, of course—can be just as meaningful and insightful as any other kind of fiction. It just has to be entertaining and page-turning as well.
“But in terms of the theme and its resonance, I think it’s endlessly fascinating. I’m interested in why people do the things they do, and one answer to that question is that where you end up in life very often depends on where you start. For better or worse, our families play a huge part in that. It’s also fertile ground for a thriller. If you’re an even halfway decent parent, you have at least two fears: that something terrible will happen to your child; and that you’re not doing a good enough job of raising them. I thought it would be fun to use a serial killer to literally embody those fears and see where I could take them.
“Some people have compared THE WHISPER MAN to The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense, which is enormously flattering, as I love both of those, but neither were on my mind while I was writing. I think it can be hard to work out what your influences are. It’s all a big stew of material mixed up inside you, and your own stories are basically just bubbles on the surface.
“My favorite writer as a kid was Diana Wynne Jones. And then I read a lot of horror as I was growing up, so writers like Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Laymon, and Clive Barker were probably huge formative influences. As I got older, I fell in love with writers like Michael Marshall Smith, Christopher Priest, and Graham Joyce, who were doing wonderful stuff with genres and the way they bleed into each other at the edges. In terms of crime fiction, Mo Hayder looms large for me. I think she’s amazing.
“In non-literary terms, my son was a huge influence on the book. He’s very different from Jake, but he’s just as awesome.”
With Diana Wynne Jones, North took particular care to bring in her book The Power of Three: “It was one of my favorite books of hers as a kid. And I was reading it to my son (and loving it all over again) at the same time as I was writing THE WHISPER MAN, so it seemed natural to have it be the book Tom and Jake are reading together at bedtime.
“It was only after I’d included it that I realized what an appropriate fit it is. For one thing, there’s the title, which is particularly relevant to Tom and Jake, who have lost Rebecca and are floundering now that it’s just the two of them. For another, The Power of Three is about a father and son who have trouble understanding each other, and the son turns out to have a psychic gift. So it ended up being the perfect choice on a number of levels, and there are actually a couple of other references to the book hidden in THE WHISPER MAN as background scenery.”
The writing itself is very vivid: the slow-mounting dread, the interior dialogues, the author’s own hints and whispers that play with our expectations. Everybody has a different writing process. How did North create his?
“Honestly, I wish I had anything as sensible and organized as a process. For me, it’s more like chaos than any kind of structure. Some days I’ll write a lot, others barely a word. Sometimes I’ll plan in detail, and then there are days when I’ve no idea what’s coming next. The best way to describe the way I write is that—certainly in the early stages—what I’m producing is far more likely to be scaffolding than actual building. The building comes later, and often bears very little resemblance to what I imagined it might look like at the beginning.
“The more I write, the more I understand the story, and the more of my original efforts I find myself editing out and discarding. Equally, small moments that I imagine as throwaway at the time take on more relevance, and so I have to go back and seed them throughout the story. And so on. (And on, and on…)
“It’s not the most efficient way of working, and not the most conducive to hitting deadlines. In the last few weeks of a book, I usually find myself tearing my hair out and writing and rewriting massive chunks—tens of thousands of words at a time. It’s exhausting, but it’s also the only way I’ve found that works for me. Other writers are smarter.”
Another thing that works for North is expressed by Tom Kennedy himself. Kennedy says, “As a writer, one of the things I’d always believed was that you didn’t talk about your stories until they were finished. If you did, there was less of an urge to write them down—almost as though the story just needed to be told in some capacity, and the pressure reduced the more you did.”
“I do believe this—or at least, I find it’s true for myself,” says North. “There are two aspects to it. The first, as Tom says in the book, is that I think talking about the story robs me of some of the energy I require to write it down. You need enthusiasm to keep turning up at the keyboard every day, and part of that is wanting to get the story finished so people can experience it. If I was telling people about it while I was writing, there’d be less impetus for me to put it down on paper.
“But on a more basic level, it goes back to what I said about my process (or lack thereof). I’m never quite sure how a story will turn out, so there’s not much point trying to explain it to someone when the chances are everything I’m saying will change anyway. It often takes me a couple of full drafts to understand what I should have written all along. Sad and painful, but true.”
He sums it all up this way: “I don’t think I’m in much of a position to give anyone advice, but if I had to say anything it would be this: half the battle is turning up. There will be good days and bad days (and probably far more of the latter than the former) but you can’t avoid those bad days. If you don’t have one now, it will just be waiting for you tomorrow instead, so you might as well show up and get it out of the way so that you’re closer to the next good day instead. And I have this weird idea that the creative part of your brain grudgingly respects you for making the effort and eventually rewards you for doing so.”
It certainly has rewarded North. THE WHISPER MAN is only the fourth novel published by the new imprint Celadon Books, and the first was the runaway success Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient. They’re backing him with a lot of firepower, and I assume North is already well along with the follow-up?
“Like I said, I’m superstitious about talking about current projects. But I’m nearly finished with the next book now (as much as books are ever finished). I don’t want to say too much about it at this point, but it’s another psychological thriller with a mystery element and supernatural overtones. It’s about a murder and an impossible disappearance many years ago that are revisited in the present day.
“Hopefully it’s pretty creepy, and anyone who enjoyed THE WHISPER MAN will like this one, too.”
Superstitious or not, it seems like a pretty good bet to me. Knock wood.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the Executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: