William Marshall, a rather obscure Australian mystery author, is one of those writers whose books follow the same formula, on the strength that that formula is unlike anyone else’s. As this post suggests, his police procedurals resemble a spinning plates act at a carnival, usually at the expense of an easily followed plot and cast of refined characters. That’s ok though, because the payoff is a lot of entertainment, slapstick humor, and usually, a serious treatment of real issues.
Whisper (1988) is the first Marshall book I’ve read that does not belong to his Yellowthread Street mysteries, which take place in Hong Kong. Instead, the events of Whisper occur in and around Manila, the largest city in the Philippines. Like Skulduggery and Out of Nowhere, this book takes on traditions of death and burial rites as important themes (Marshall’s biography page mentions some time working as a mortuary assistant). Skeletons are involved.
Lieutenant Felix Elizalde is a Manila detective attempting to uncover the pattern behind a series of seemingly random attacks among the poor residents of the city. First, a faith healer (who specializes in extracting bad teeth) is killed with by a man with a shotgun, who immediately turns the weapon on himself. Then, two shop-owners are killed by an almost anonymous, machine pistol-wielding woman. She is, in turn, killed by an overworked traffic policeman who happened to be resting his feet in the area.
Elizalde’s investigation reveals a malaise of fear and paranoia among the people in the district, who are convinced that the police, being the tools of the upper class, are actively preying upon them. He eventually finds a local priest that is reluctantly willing to partially fill him in:
Mang Eleutrio said, smiling, “And here you are on the steps of this church erected by a madman on the orders of a madman’s spirit guide from– from where? Venus? Saturn? Traveled, educated, well-dressed and–” Mang Eleutrio said, “I can look into souls. I see yours.” Mang Eleutrio said quietly, “Felix isn’t it?”
Mang Eleutrio said quietly, in Spanish– God alone knew where he had learned it– so the people passing by would not understand him, “I know nothing more than I’ve told you about either Feliciano or Barrera or what happened, but I do know this– I know it to be true–”
“All the barangays, all the barrios, all the neighborhoods and streets of the poor–” He paused, looking around.
Mang Eleutrio said, “I know for a fact that, now, today, this moment, I know they are all arming themselves.”
He shrugged. He looked away. At the entrance of the Santo Seng Kong Church, nodding in acknowledgement to his people, Mang Apo Eleutro Molina, ex-fisherman, looked down at the step.
As usual, Marshall offers some clues throughout the main storyline, and interleaves another plot to keep things from getting too linear or too morose. The two sergeants who report to Elizalde are investigating threats against a troupe of little people who perform circus acts while serving food in a restaurant. It is a lucrative trade and attracts tourists into a struggling city, but smoke bombs are starting to explode inside their place of business. The policemen involved are caricatures rather than interesting characters in their own right, much like Spencer and Auden of the Yellowthread series. We eventually learn that what the troupe really fear has much do with the fears of the poor in Elizalde’s case.
The plot, a wave of fear-driven terrorism coordinated by a figure known as The Whispering Man, and the plot beneath that plot, eventually come to light after a series of red herrings and plot twists. Elizalde eventually figures it out in the end, but faces a test of character when the time comes to confront The Whispering Man himself. It is a familiar pattern to readers of the Yellowthread books, which always attempt to cram a lot of confusion and surprises into its dense paperbacks. Whisper is noticeably longer and more evenly paced, and fall between the highs of Sci Fi and Out of Nowhere and the lows of Gelignite. Still recommended, then. 7/10.