66 pages 2 hours read

Alex North

The Whisper Man

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


The Whisper Man, released in August 2019, is a crime thriller by British author Alex North about the potential resurgence of a serial child murderer known as the Whisper Man and how it entangles various characters in a small town. North claims he got the idea for the book after his son mentioned “the boy in the floor.” Through criminal investigation and the lives of a father and son, North explores the nature of intergenerational trauma and paternal relationships. The Whisper Man was a New York Times bestseller and received a nomination for a Goodreads Choices Award in the Best Mystery & Thriller category.

This guide references the 2019 Celadon Books paperback edition.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with a letter—written in hindsight of the novel’s events—from Tom Kennedy to his son, Jake. Tom assures Jake of how much he loves him, talks about Jake’s mother, and apologizes for telling him that monsters don’t exist.

After Tom’s wife, Rebecca, died, he and Jake were heartbroken. Struggling in their grief, they became disconnected. For a fresh start, Tom buys a new home for them in Featherbank, a rural English town. He hopes that the move will help them leave the pain of their past behind, but as events unfold, they’re nearer to it than ever before. Jake chooses the house they move into despite Tom’s reservations about the place. Something about it seems off: It pitches to one side and has an unsettling air. In addition, the town has a tragic past: a series of kidnappings and murders committed by Frank Carter, known as the Whisper Man.

The story has six parts. In Part 1, young Neil Spencer is kidnapped on his way home from his father’s house. Detective Amanda Beck is the lead officer on the case, and Detective Pete Willis assists her informally, as his knowledge of the Whisper Man case two decades earlier makes him a valuable resource. These murders led to four confirmed dead and one boy, Tony Smith, who was never found. The case haunts Pete, who has never stopped searching for Tony’s body. Meanwhile, Tom has purchased the home in Featherbank and intends to move there with Jake. Tom privately worries about his son’s overreliance on imaginary friends and disconnection from the wider world—and his Packet of Special Things (private objects), which Jake takes everywhere. The narrative reveals that Neil Spencer’s kidnapper was whispering to him through the window in the nights before his abduction. Because this fact bears a striking similarity to the Whisper Man abductions, Pete and Amanda wonder if they have a copycat on their hands.

Part 2 begins as Tom and Jake settle into their home in Featherbank, which Tom finds somewhat spooky. Tom, a novelist, struggles to work on his new book—and is troubled by a recurring dream of his father leaving him after a violent exchange with Tom’s mother. During Jake’s first day of school, Tom sees a strange man trying to break into the locked garage and confronts him. When he checks the garage, he sees that the previous tenants’ things are still there. Meanwhile, Pete visits Frank Carter, the Whisper Man, in prison. However, Frank won’t talk to him, and Pete leaves with reminders of bad memories and intensified difficulty in his struggle with alcoholism, which the trauma of the Whisper Man killings spurred. At the Kennedy house, Jake reads a letter that Tom was writing to his deceased wife detailing his struggles to raise Jake; a fight ensues, which leaves Tom rattled. During the night, he wakes to find his son at the front door: A man is there with his fingers in the mail slot, trying to coax Jake to let him in.

Part 3 details the aftermath of the police finding Neil Spencer’s body. The reporting officer doesn’t take Tom’s encounter with the strange man seriously. Unable to shake the feeling that the house is sinister, Tom decides to investigate it himself while the police track down visitors to Frank Carter’s known associates in prison. Tom learns from the previous owner of his house that her last renter, Dominic Barnett, was murdered—and that the man who was poking around his home tried to buy it, but the owners accepted Tom’s offer instead. He wonders what drew the man back to the house and, specifically, the garage. Tom digs into the garage’s nooks and crannies, even pulling up the floor—where he finds the bones of a long-dead child. Forensics reveal that it’s the body of Tony Smith, the last of The Whisper Man’s victims. Shortly after this gruesome discovery, the police update Tom on the investigation into the attempted kidnapping of Jake. The police tell him about another boy, six-year-old Neil Spencer, who was abducted the previous summer and later found murdered. The killer had pulled Neil’s shirt up to conceal the boy’s face, an act that was the Whisper Man’s calling card. However, Frank Carter has been in prison for 20 years, so police suspect that he has an accomplice or that someone is mimicking his crimes.

Meanwhile, Pete and Amanda track down Norman Collins—the strange man who was lurking around Tom’s house—and learn that he’s been visiting Victor Tyler, Frank’s closest friend in prison. Pete visits him while Amanda follows up with Tom. The narrative reveals that Norman knew about Tony Smith’s body and has a macabre fascination with violent crime. He was paying Victor Tyler to visit the body through Dominic (and another man before him). After arresting Norman, Pete digs into the history of the house Tom bought; when he sees Tom’s name, he realizes that Tom is his estranged son. Norman Collins’s arrest is some relief to Tom, but when he meets Pete, he’s shaken by the revelation that Pete is his father. Tom tries to reconcile his memories of his father, a volatile alcoholic, with this respected police detective. He resolves to treat Pete as a stranger. However, Pete’s easygoing chemistry with Jake tests Tom’s resolve. Norman Collins confesses to Dominic Barnett’s murder but isn’t Neil Spencer’s kidnapper.

As Part 4 opens, Tom confides in Karen Shaw—a fellow parent at Jake’s school and a growing romantic interest—and tells her almost all of what’s happened. Although she’s a journalist, she holds Tom’s words in confidence. Tom is blunt about his worries regarding his relationship with Jake in the wake of Rebecca’s death. They don’t know it, but the kidnapper lurks nearby—listening to their conversation—and decides that Jake’s father is bad and that Jake needs rescuing. Pete puts Tom and Jake into a safe house. Although he has resolved to stay out of Tom and Jake’s life, Pete can’t help his curiosity and the growing hope that he can have a relationship with them. Tom gradually warms to the idea, as Pete reveals that Tom’s recurring dream (about his father leaving him after fighting violently with Tom’s mother) isn’t true. Trust grows between them.

Pete visits Frank Carter at the jail again and notices that Frank takes special interest in a photo of one of the visitors to the prison. He realizes that the man in the photo is Frank’s son, Francis Carter, whom Pete rescued 20 years earlier and who witnessed Frank’s vicious crimes. While the police try to track down Francis, Tom asks Karen out, and when he realizes he needs a babysitter for their date, he reaches out to Pete. The night that Pete arrives to babysit, Tom and Pete have a sense of foreboding. Nevertheless, Tom leaves the house, and Pete and Jake settle in for the evening. While Pete and Jake bond over their shared history, Francis Carter enters the house, stabs Pete, and abducts Jake.

Part 5 begins with Pete near death in the hospital as the police hunt for Jake. Pete’s fellow officer, Amanda Beck, is catching up on Francis Carter’s whereabouts even though she knows his identity. Tom is beside himself and, hoping to find some comfort, opens Jake’s Packet of Special Things. He sees that Jake’s imaginary friend is based on pictures of Rebecca as a child; in one of them, she’s standing in front of the house they purchased in Featherbank. Tom realizes that Jake has been processing Rebecca’s death by imagining that she’s still with him and guiding them toward this house. Another of Jake’s things is a picture of a “corpse moth” butterfly drawn by an adult’s hand on the same paper the school gives students for drawing. Knowing that these butterflies were near Tony Smith’s body, he realizes that someone connected to the Whisper Man met with Jake and gave him the picture.

He rushes to the school and questions Jake’s teacher, who reveals that a teaching assistant named George Saunders—the alias that Francis Carter is using—is out sick. Karen helps Tom find out where Francis lives. Meanwhile, Francis grows angry with Jake for talking to his imaginary friend and refusing to comply with his instructions. Clearly, Francis is near snapping and murdering Jake. Tom arrives just as Francis is about to move on Jake. Tom suspects that he’s holding Jake somewhere in the house. Francis almost convinces Tom that he knows nothing about Jake’s whereabouts. However, Jake screams from upstairs. Tom tries to get to his son, but Francis stabs him. Karen calls the police and helps Tom hold Francis down until they arrive. Tom’s wounds aren’t fatal, and Jake escapes unharmed. The police arrest Francis.

The story ends as Tom, still recovering from his injuries, visits Pete in the hospital. Pete is dying. Father and son embrace, a sign of Tom’s forgiveness and their reconciliation. Pete’s life flashes before his eyes, and he’s at peace with it after having reconciled with his son. Jake and Tom are back at home and more connected than they’ve been since Rebecca died. Tom has decided to prioritize his life with his son and possibly explore a relationship with Karen when he feels ready. Francis reunites with Frank in prison, and although Francis thought that his father would be proud of the pain he inflicted on the Kennedys, he realizes that this is far from true. Outraged at his son’s actions, Frank alienates the rest of the prisoners from Francis so that his son will have no allies behind bars. When Frank comes to see him one night, Francis sees the pure hate in his father’s eyes and, knowing what comes next, pulls his shirt over his own face just as Frank did to his victims before murdering them.