By Diane Hoh.
Shea Fallon does something she never thought she’d stoop to in order to pass an important Biology exam and keep her scholarship. She sneaks into Professor Stark’s office, and steals the exam paper. When the strict and universally loathed professor reveals she knows there’s a cheat in her class, Shea panics and rushes back to the scene of the crime to confess and beg for mercy. Instead, she discovers Professor Stark on the floor, out-cold and bleeding profusely from a nasty head wound. Shea calls for help, then leaves. Before the attack, the professor had announced in class that she had begun video-taping her office to catch potential cheats. So not only is there a VHS tape out there exposing Shea’s theft, but also her fingerprints are all over the office, including on the paperweight the attacker used as a weapon. All the evidence points to Shea; it’s only a matter of time before the police piece together the clues and bundle her off to prison.
Then she gets a creepy, whispered phone call from someone claiming to have the VHS tape and paperweight, saying they’ll hand the evidence over to Shea if she agrees to follow their commands. Shea knows that playing along with a blackmailer won’t lead to anything good. But what choice does she have, if she wants to avoid exposure and jail? So she complies, and follows the whisperer’s disturbing instruction to sneak into the Animal Behaviour Studies lab, steal a rattlesnake, and throw it into a specified dorm room in the middle of the night. What Shea doesn’t know is that one of the dorm room’s residents has a heart condition and a deathly fear of snakes, and the prescribed ‘prank’ lands that girl in the infirmary. Terrified that there could have been fatal consequences, Shea refuses to follow the whisperer’s next order, which is to chop off her roommate Tandy’s beautiful, long blonde hair. On her way to confess, and thereby extricate herself from her blackmailer’s control, Shea gets trapped in a lift just long enough for someone else to sneak into her room and hack off Tandy’s tresses… with Shea’s own scissors.
A single, silly mistake is now inextricably linked with other, far more egregious crimes, and Shea is implicated in them all. She must find a way to clear her name, and escape the whisperer’s vice-like grip, before they can put into action the grim fate they have in store for her.
Desperation and loss of control pervade the action of The Whisperer. From Shea’s initial error, she slides down a dark chute of ever worse decisions, landing in a place from where it is difficult to see her ever finding her way back. It’s this sense of doom which makes the entry a compelling read, rather than the set pieces which all too often fall flat. Deep down, I knew there was some salvation in store for our heroine, but I had hoped she might suffer a little more before she got there. The ambitious double-twist is far from guessable, but the second part of it is somewhat difficult to accept, and for me it didn’t work as well as it could have done, had the groundwork been more carefully laid. Still, it’s an entertaining read; one which offers something different and pleasingly unexpected, considering we’re now twelve books into the series.
Up to a point, it’s easy to get on board with Shea’s thought processes, and to empathise with her desperate situation. We can imagine ourselves in her shoes for at least the first seventy-odd pages and we feel her guilt; her fear; her frustration and the loneliness of not having anyone to turn to. This starts to dissipate around the time of the rattlesnake incident (which is a wasted opportunity for some top-drawer horror) when things start to get a bit silly and our sympathy begins to wane. The Whisperer rasping out threats from inside a TV unit is a low point.
Following the surprise reveal, there should be ample opportunity for threat and violence, given the perp is utterly unhinged and has considerable advantages. But Shea never really relinquishes any of the undeserved control she’s blessed with in this final showdown, and this massively dampens the danger. The Whisperer is a story of two halves: it starts scary; ends tamely, and therefore it only merits a middling fear factor rating of…