I grew curious about the character of Whispering Smith years back. I was reading a book about the Wild West, and the author mentioned, in an aside, that Smith was based – in part – on the real life lawman Joe Lefors. Lefors is best remembered nowadays as the faceless posseman in a straw boater who so spooks Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie. In real life, alas, Joe Lefors was less of… well, of a force. He didn’t catch Butch and Sundance, after all, and his greatest achievement was extracting the confession that sent Tom Horn to the gallows for murder in 1903. Historians ever since have disputed the validity of that confession.
The same writer mentioned that the vicious killer Harvey DuSang in the novel is based on another Wild Bunch member, Harvey Logan (Kid Curry).
I first heard of Whispering Smith in a short-lived 1961 TV series that starred Audie Murphy. That series is notorious for being cited in a Senate Juvenile Delinquency Committee hearing as an egregious example of TV violence. The series actually bore almost no resemblance to the book, retaining the hero’s name and pretty much nothing else.
The series was loosely based on a 1948 movie (actually the last of several film adaptations) that starred Alan Ladd and Robert Preston. That movie was based on the book, though they moved it back in time (the novel is set around 1900, and everybody has telephones), and omitted a rather charming romantic subplot.
Having established that, let’s talk about the actual book, Whispering Smith, by Frank H. Spearman. It’s free for Kindle, so I thought that after all these years I’d find out what it was about. I had a pleasant surprise in store.
The story starts with a railroad foreman, Murray Sinclair, arriving at a wreck site to clear the track. He’s a well-paid and competent employee of the company, popular and efficient. But, we also learn, he’s pretty much a man without a conscience. We’d call him a sociopath today. He considers it one of his perks to plunder the wrecks. He’s caught at it by a railroad supervisor, and fired on the spot.
Sinclair withdraws along with his work crew, and becomes an outlaw, dynamiting and wrecking the trains he used to salvage. This causes the railroad president to call in his best detective, Gordon “Whispering” Smith.
Smith has been keeping away from that particular area for some time, out of consideration for a resident of the town. Marion Sinclair is Smith’s old flame, but she married his childhood friend Murray Sinclair. She’s learned Murray’s true character by now and has separated from him, but (in one of those plot points that would be incomprehensible to today’s reader) they both respect the sanctity of marriage and wouldn’t dream of committing adultery together.
But Sinclair is too proud to run, and Smith has principles about doing his job, so their final showdown is inevitable.
When I started reading Whispering Smith, it seemed to me a pretty standard old-fashioned novel. The prose was a little more florid than what we prefer today, and the dialogue doubtlessly bowdlerized. But the more I read, the more I got caught up in the story. The characters are exceedingly well done, especially that of Smith himself. He’s one of those seemingly ordinary men who reveals increasingly intriguing depths.
Everything surprised Whispering Smith, even his salary; but an important consequence was that nothing excited him.
I truly enjoyed Whispering Smith, and I recommend it heartily.