Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Whisperer ~ Donato Carrisi

Has anyone else read this? Because, if so, I would very much like a second opinion. I was asked to read it by a librarian friend who knows that I enjoy crime fiction. She herself was in two minds about it, and I think I can see why, but as I say, I would like to hear what others think.

The Whisperer is a first novel by an Italian writer, Donato Carrisi. Carrisi has written in the past for the cinema and you can certainly see a cinematic imagination at work in this book.

Basically, without giving too much away, the story centres around, Mila, a police woman who specialises in the rescue of abducted children. She is called in to help a dedicated and already established team following the disappearance of five young girls between the ages of eight and thirteen. A possible burial site has been identified and sure enough as the police begin to dig they also find remains. However, they are not the remains of complete corpses. All they find is a series of left arms. And they don't find five, they find six. Somewhere another girl has been abducted, but her disappearance has not been reported. Furthermore, forensic examination of the arms leads the team to believe that while the other five children are dead, the sixth may well be being kept alive. The race is on to identify that final child and to find her while there is still a chance of saving her life.

For a first novel there are many things about this book that mark Carrisi out as a writer to watch. The plotting is tight and the twists come at just the right moments and certainly surprise. But, while they are not signalled, they are still believable. This man knows a lot about human nature. Furthermore, the psychology on which the basic premise is founded is sound and this isn't surprising given that the author has a degree in law and has specialised in criminology and behavioural science. I don't want to talk about the direction his thinking actually takes because it would given too much away, but well known cases are quoted and unlikely as the underlying hypothesis might seem, when you start to think about it I'm afraid any disquiet as to its accuracy gives way to disquiet at the thought that there are humans out there who can behave like this.

I also thought that he managed his characters very well. I had clear pictures in my mind of each of them and of their relationships with each other. My only possible uncertainty was to do with the Police Chief, Roche. Accepting that he would have got as far as he has in the service asked me to be more cynical about the relationship between police and politics than I like to be. But then, I have to remember that this is Italy. It is a different system from the one I'm used to and therein lies the rub.

Because I do have some disquiet about this book and the further I read the more I began to wonder if it isn't down to the way in which it has been translated. To begin with, the actual lexical translation itself seems to me to be very uneven. One of the problems with English becoming such a universal language is that there are many different versions of English. We're probably all aware of the difference between British English and American English. Who was it said that we were two nations divided by a single language? There is the same degree of difference between other varieties as well and I think part of the problem here is that the translator hasn't decided which variety he is going to opt for. So, I will happily be reading along in British English only to suddenly come across a phrase that I have only ever heard from some of my Irish colleagues. All well and good if the character is Irish, but he isn't, he's Italian.

Or is he, because some of the names seem to have been 'translated' into English as well. Am I really supposed to think that there was a small Italian boy in a Catholic orphanage called Billy Moore? I don't think so, somehow.

But then, am I actually suppose to think that the book is set in Italy? I can't remember any direct references that would place the action that precisely. Is the translator going for a kind of universality, a one size fits all that would let any reader place the events in their own country? If so, it isn't going to work because there are aspects of the way in which the crime is solved that won't translate that neatly. And elements in the aftermath that not even I am cynical enough to think that the police would get away with in the UK.

I know I am always very wary of translations, so perhaps I am being unfair but the feeling I come away with from this book is that here is a writer of considerable potential who needs to have serious discussions with his publishers about the way any future books are prepared for the overseas market. I don't think this version does Carrisi justice. As it stands I found the story he had to tell really gripping. Next time it would be good if the narrative through which it found voice was gripping as well.



  1. The plot sounds incredibly interesting but you've also put me in two minds over whether to read it! I've got a feeling that the things which jarred for you would do the same for me. I suppose it might be a personal preference, but I like consistency.

  2. CL, I would say on balance that you ought to read it. I suspect that I'm not going to be the only one commenting on the translation and if that is the case then his publishers will probably find a better option for the next one. I think he might turn out to be a writer you were glad to have been with from the beginning.

  3. I haven't read this book - in fact, I hadn't heard anything about it until reading your post - but I think I might like to give it a try despite the poor translation. It's a shame because a good translation can make all the difference as to whether you enjoy the reading experience or not.

  4. I read the first couple of chapters of The Whisperer, then decided to buy the copy on the sale table and I haven't got back to it yet. I liked the relationships between professionals and the setup looked interesting but I didn't read enough to analyse the translation.

    Possibly there is one translation for all the English speaking world and the "neutrality" comes from trying to market the book to the widest possible audience.

    I know that a lot of Scandinavian crime has different translations for the UK and the US. Reg Kleeland and Steven T Murray are the same man, for instance, but he uses the former name for US translations and the latter for UK translations.

    There's a smaller market for translated crime fiction from other countries so maybe corners are cut. But hooray for some of the smaller specialist presses (Bitter Lemon comes to mind) who are doing a grand job.

  5. Helen, do. Apart from anything else, I would love to know what you think about it, but as I said above, this might be a major author coming onto the scene and it's nice to be there from the beginning.

    Fleur, I don't know anything about Bitter Lemon, I'm off to investigate. And I'm so looking forward to what you think when you finish the book.

  6. The issue of translations is very troubling. I want to be able to read books written in other languages, but it's so hard to know how good the translation is. When my mystery book group read Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett we wondered how many of its flaws came from the translator, and also from the differences in culture we weren't aware of.

  7. This sounds like an interesting book--one I think I'll add to my wishlist. I like reading books in translation but it is difficult to get a sense of what the author intended without being familiar with the original language and sometimes the culture of the place I'm reading about. Hearing colloquialisms (either British or English or some other variation) can indeed be jarring. I've just finished a crime novel where there was a mix as well--references to knickers and mobiles made me think the book was translated for a British market, but then a character paid for something in dollars. It would be hard for a translator to try and convey a sense of the story and place but putting it into a context that someone who isn't from there would understand. Very tricky business. I'd prefer to let as much of the original language/culture come through but also would find name changes jarring. I agree that Bitter Lemon press is wonderful and I've read a number of their authors and am trying to read as much from their front/backlist as I can. Also, I had no idea that Reg Kleeland and Steven Murray were the same man! Interesting.

  8. Dorothy, I know that one of my 'failings' as a reader is that I don't read enough by non-UK/US writers, but the main reason for this is that I've had so many translation problems in the past. Even with the classics you can never be sure of a quality piece of work. I suppose the answer is to be fluent enough to be able to read works in the original, but given the number of languages involved that is hardly feasible.

    Danielle, I am definitely going to have to explore Bitter Lemon Press. I really do want to expand my knowledge of writers from other cultures and to have a recommendation from two people I trust is really useful.

  9. Hi Anne - this is the first time I've come across your blog (directed from Kim's Tripple Tuesday).

    I read this book about a year ago and really enjoyed it. To be honest I have forgotten a lot of it. I do think that while I enjoyed the book immensley (I love crime fiction) I thought that the ending was OTT (although I don't quite remember why). Even though I'm not sure that I thought about it too much at the time, I do think that the translation wasn't as tight as it could have been and I did notice the Billy Moore name and the fact that wherever the book was was never named.

    I'll be looking out for more of this authors work too. great review, Anne.

  10. Welcome, BW, nice to meet you. I hope we're going to hear a lot more from Carrisi and that he will prove to be one of those writers who gets better as he writes more and not one who only has one book in them - such a disappointment.

  11. I love this book I would definitely recommend to anyone to read it,it took me only two days to read. I would also recommend not reading it at night alone !!! :)

  12. generally i'll read through a book once. however this confused yet interested me enough that i read through it again, paying closer attention to the details. however, i'm still confused about some of the messages. it's silly to ask but would someone have some free time that could explain their interpretation of the book? it's haunting me enough to ask.

  13. Annie, why so preoccupied with things Italian? I recall no obvious references apart from the author's name and place of first publication.Seems to me to have tried extra hard to have a 'generic' locale.
    Thanks for an interesting review but I must say I thought the translation fine.Perhaps as an Aussie I'm not so conscious of the US/English divide(except where computer English is concerned.)
    I thought Signor C handled a complex plot with skill and the overall effect was rewarding although I'm still digesting the cocktail of the 'chief' investigator having committed murder inspired by the mystery prisoner,obligingly trying to top himself when exposed, another investigator abetting one of the baddies because her daughter is a victim and yet another revealed as the innocent inspiration for most of the ugliness anyway even though her formal involvement appears to be largely an afterthought .

  14. I just finished reading this book and I too am in two minds. I agree that the characters were interesting and well observed and the plot quite tight and full of twists, but I found the setting and the translation a bit unsettling. I never thoguth for a moment it was set in Italy, because of the variety of names, some English, Irish, Spanish and others. I assumed it was some kind of generic American setting, judging by the descriptions of the landscape and the buildings. But then Roche was a "chief inspector", which is not, as far as I know, an American term, but a British one, and then there were references to "villages" and "pubs", which sounded more British.
    The whole thing felt to me like an extended episode of "Criminal Minds", and I was disappointed that it wasn't as literary as I had been led to believe. I could see it being adapted to a film.
    I like reading Scandanavian fiction, and part of what makes it interesting is its Scandanavian setting, which definitely adds to the quality of the story. I would have enjoyed this story more if it had clearly had an Italian setting; and if the translation had been more coherent.

  15. Hi Annie - I've just finished the book and found it a compelling page turner, albeit with horrific violence. I didn't think that the ending worked. The Gavila twist was hideous and, for me, out of character. In addition, from what one read about Mila's tormentor, it wasn't credible that he became so clever.

    1. Seeking Resolution6 July 2012 at 16:17


      @Winchester whisperer: I have to agree with respect to the Gavila twist; it was almost as if another character had been transplanted into his place, so sudden and jarring was his secret when it was finally revealed. Also, just as a matter of personal interest, I'd dearly love to know what that "human weight" Gavila picked up from under his desk was... Was it another giant teddy bear?

      However, perhaps the most frustrating mystery for me is the very end of the book itself. I've actually been poring over various websites for forums where the book in its totality is discussed, but as I've yet to find one, I'm going to appeal to all those who have read it in an attempt to gain some kind of... clarity... at last!

      1) @Winchester whisperer: I can't agree regarding the insinuation at the end that Steve was, in fact, the grand mastermind (so to speak) of all the murders; I think instead that Steve was just another victim of 'The Whisperer' and that we were supposed to be shocked by the realisation that this had been going on for much longer (disregarding the orphanage elements of the story) than anyone had guessed. Does anyone agree? However, this just leaves me with more issues, namely...

      2) Reading the last few chapters, I got the distinct impression that perhaps The Whisperer was trying to convert Mila too, especially at the end when she thinks to herself "It was all meant for [me]." In fact, it also (briefly) crossed my mind that by coming into contact with The Whisperer in his cell, Mila might perhaps be subconsciously driven to kill (as Gavila supposedly was by coming into contact with the tapes). Tie this in with all those previous chapters talking about her lack of empathy (which did put me in mind of a psychopath and make me wonder if maybe she wouldn't turn out to be the killer herself), is it possible that the point of all these killings was to set up another generation of killers, i.e. Mila herself, possible her unborn daughter and likely Sandra (who has now essentially experienced the same childhood trauma as Mila)?

      3) The fact that The Whisperer accepted Mila's hand when she held it out to shake strikes me as being very deliberate despite his seeming to have been shocked by it; the fact that, when they finally got his DNA, nothing came up anyway suggests to me that he had some ulterior motive for doing so. Perhaps he did it just to touch Mila? Or perhaps he actually wanted his DNA on file for some future game (perhaps, again, involving Mila)? Any thoughts?

      4) I keep coming back to the orphanage elements of the story, because I find it too implausible that The Whisperer managed to get so close to two orphans (Ronald Dermis and Feldher) in a relatively isolated institution without having been a part of it in some way, either as another older orphan or some kind of authority figure. Does anyone else agree?

  16. I've finished finished reading the book....i found it very intersrting with a lot of twists....the only downside for me wasnt the translations but the fact that the place and setting of the story wasnt stated or mentioned at all...which i consider very important when reading a book to help me visualize the characters and whats happening...dont know if it was an author's ''glitch'' or made on purpose when translating.....
    anyways, i would so recommend reading it....


  17. I started to read this and then stopped. I have to say I found the translation pretty frstrating and quite inept. I work as a Spanish-English translator and am very aware of the pitfalls, and I feel that this translator simply wasn't up to the job. He translates very literally, with not much literary skill. I'm afraid I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been translated more skillfully.

  18. I just finish it reading this book and was reading not in English but in my mother language Macedonian, have to say that the book was amazing and a love it, and about the translations a have to say that reading it on Macedonian I find it very readable.
    I have to say it again I love this book and i cant wait for the next book to come!!!

  19. I am almost fininshed with the book. I like it a lot even if sometimes things didn't quite flow. A few to many twists maybe. It kept me coming back to read more and I hope he writes another book. I would read it. Do all of these things really happen? I'm not sure that it was necessary to have a sex scene between Gavila and Mila. It seemed like it was just dropped in the story. I guess it was a means for Mila to tell her story. I think it was a good 1st novel, I hope he writes more, this one sure had a bit of everything.

  20. The poor translation certainly got in the way. I got bored half way through as I thought that it would be different from the usual Scandinavian doom-gloom. We got the lot and I started to groan when the not quite priest tried to kill the self harming quite attractive Mila. Mind you I'd taken quite a fancy to Boris but when we moved into posh dentistry and St-Bernard dog having survived I've forgotten what, I gave up. Jean, of course it was necessary to have a sex scene. it's on par with the rest of the book. Anyway what about readers? Why deprive them even if it was not all that exciting?