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Literature / Whispers From The Dead

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One of the few overtly supernatural works written by Joan Lowery Nixon—most of them either have only vague hints at something otherworldly, sometimes only due to the publishers' blurb (The Other Side of Dark), or what at first is played up as supernatural turns out to have an ordinary if chilling explanation (The Seance, A Deadly Game of Magic). But this one, while it could be dismissed as only being the result of a Near-Death Experience and really just about solving a sociopath's murders, is made very clear at the outset via the first-person perspective to involve a true haunting and psychic experiences. note 

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Darnell, after her family moves to Houston as part of her father's promotion/company transfer (and, though no one will say it outright, to help escape the aftereffects of her drowning), discovers that their new house—expensive and lavish but available at a startlingly low price—was the site of a grisly murder two years before. What wasn't expected, however, was that the Psychic Link she'd accidentally forged with the Other Side would draw in the ghost of a victim seeking justice and a chance to rest. As Sarah attempts to balance fitting in and making friends in her new community, dating a handsome older acquaintance, and keeping her parents from learning the truth of her supernatural experience, she must find a way to communicate with this ghost and solve the mystery...before those who don't want it solved make sure she, too, is only a whisper from the dead.


This book provides examples of:

  • Absence of Evidence: This is the main reason that the murders remain unsolved until Sarah comes into the picture—that because the murder weapon (and any fingerprints) was missing from the scene of the crime, and although the blood in the entry hall and the discarded pizza box proves Darlene Garland had been at the Holts and murdered there, there is no witness or other evidence proving Adam himself was actually at the scene when the murder took place. A neighbor hearing screams is also dismissed as being such proof because the timing doesn't fit (since the police didn't know about Rosa's murder). There's also the point that the Holts got rid of any evidence of Rosa living with them, which makes it impossible to prove Adam murdered her either.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Sarah's friends in her original home town unfortunately have a downplayed reaction like this when they learn about the spiritual presence that haunted her ever since she nearly drowned—becoming afraid of her, disturbed and uncomfortable around her, coming up with excuses not to hang out with her, and eventually being secretly glad when her family moves to Houston. Summed up in the nickname "Strange/Weird Sarah."
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  • Alone with the Psycho: Although technically any time Sarah is alone with Tony is an example of this, the real moment comes just before the reveal of his identity, when he takes her to a lake all alone to help her conquer her fear of the water, and ends up trying to drown her. A number of things he says as he is luring her in close enough for him to grab and carry her into the water are extremely unsettling even before the reader finds out the truth, but in retrospect...
  • Cannot Keep a Secret: Dee Dee, the next door neighbor's daughter, due to the fact she has a Motor Mouth and suffers from Loose Lips. Played for Laughs at first, but considering her initial spilling of the secret about Sarah's feelings about the house and her discovery of Rosa's packet is what leads to Eric bringing Adam Holt into Sarah's life, a case could be made that the danger she faces for the rest of the book is mostly Dee Dee's fault. On the other hand, her spilling the beans to Eric about the lake trip saves Sarah from being drowned (again).
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Lupita, the Pritchards' maid. Not only does it turn out she knew Rosa and had many visits with her when the families weren't home, she actually witnessed Adam Holt removing the pizzamobile and carrying out the bodies, finally placing him at the scene of the crime so the police can arrest him.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The name of the street the Holts lived on (Fair Oaks Lane) is nearly identical to the one where a woman had called for a pizza delivery (Fair Oaks Drive). This is what leads Darlene Garland to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and her murder.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: After finding Rosa's packet of things, Dee Dee has Sarah call Mr. Holt to find out if he knows who Rosa is or what happened to her. Although he admits to her working for him, he tries to claim it was over ten years ago, when the Holts first moved in, and she "didn't work out", leaving for Mexico. But thanks to the calendar in the packet, which is dated the year of the murder and in fact has days crossed off right up to the day of the murder, Sarah knows he is lying.
  • Crime After Crime: Turns out to be the real explanation for why Adam Holt killed Darlene Garland, and making far more sense than him randomly dragging her inside to kill her (when, as Sarah astutely points out, he had no idea she was coming due to her being at the wrong address)—that in fact he killed her to cover up another crime, since she had witnessed his murder of Rosa.
  • Danger Takes A Back Seat: At the climax, Adam manages to pull this on Sarah from the back seat of the sergeant's police car. Not a wise move on his part.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Played with. Adam Holt has a purple birthmark on the inside of his wrist, but the reader doesn't learn this until Sarah sees the police file, long after it has already been revealed that Tony has the same mark and keeps it covered under his sleeve. I.e., although its initial appearance in the book clues the reader in to it being significant, the reason why isn't found out until after it doesn't really matter anymore.
  • Engineered Public Confession: Variation—when Adam Holt catches Sarah in the back of the police car, she manages to turn on the intercom (which Dee Dee had helpfully asked about in the previous chapter) and then speaks loudly to him, both letting the police know what is happening and getting him to confirm his presence and identity to them so they can come to her rescue.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: A key plot point, that both the Pritchards and the Holts had a maid like this, one who due to also being The Illegal could be easily hidden away from prying eyes if they felt it warranted. This allows for Rosa's murder and "disappearance", and keeps Lupita from confessing to what she witnessed for fear of deportation. It's also completely justified by the setting, since the book takes place in Houston and involves the sort of well-off families likely to employ such immigrants.
  • Evil Is Sexy: Tony, big time since he is most certainly a twisted and disturbing, sociopathic killer but also described constantly in terms that underscore his attractiveness. (Dee Dee said he was "seductive" and was rumored to have raped a girl but got out of it because she was believed to be a slut, while Tony has an extreme effect on Sarah via his voice alone, as well as of course his touch.) The latter even makes him Forbidden Fruit to Sarah, which is both lampshaded and invoked in-story by her and Sergeant Hardison.
    Sarah: Why does he fascinate me?
    Sergeant Hardison: Evil is often fascinating.... It has to be or it wouldn't exist.
  • Face Your Fears: Dr. Fulton recommends Sarah do this since he believes it is the source of Rosa's "calls for help"; her mother, who doesn't want to believe in the supernatural either, also encourages her, as does Dee Dee since she is a lifeguard. Trying to do so with the aid of a sociopath is a big mistake, but hopefully Sarah will be able to do so in time (although the end of the book implies that solving the mystery and ending her connection to the other side has already done this, or at least made major strides toward helping her do so).
  • Foreshadowing: There's a fair amount of this regarding Tony's true identity, starting from the fact Dee Dee has no idea who he is and she had implied Eric's only friend was Adam Holt, but a lot of it is actually fairly subtle. Knowing about the broken bedroom window is easily explained by being Adam's friend; his defense of Adam is no different than Eric's; how he reacts to her seeing the murders reenacted is how anyone in his place would react; he manages to make his warning about the packet sound like he's actually worried for Sarah (and even Rosa!); and Rosa's use of "Peligro!"note  when he is trying to snap her out of her trance and comfort her (but confused for being in relation to the murders themselves) is a marvelous bit of misdirection. Even Rosa's ragged breathing and cold fear when Tony first comes into the house is a very early clue in retrospect. By the time he is worriedly asking Sarah if she'll tell her therapist every detail about Rosa and the murders, trying to kill her right after this under the guise of helping her conquer her fear of water, and talking of her not being able to understand evil or Adam, however, The Reveal is fairly obvious.
  • I Have to Wash My Hair: Dee Dee uses this excuse word for word at one point to get away from Sarah and her questions about the Holts. It also gets used more indirectly on Sarah's mom by one of their neighbors when she is invited to the house, and Sarah herself uses a form of it when wanting to get away from Dee Dee.
  • Insanity Defense: Adam Holt actually tried to claim this to explain the murder of Darlene Garland, by stating he was doped up on so many medications (antibiotics, steroids for football, and something for depression) that he didn't know what he was doing and didn't even remember doing it ("diminished capacity"), and both Tony and Eric parrot this defense. It's quite clearly a lie, however.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: After someone breaks into the house and steals Rosa's packet with her money, calendar, religious medal, and the letter regarding her uncle's death, Sarah goes to the police to talk to the detective who had been in charge of the Holt case. When she has to explain how she knows what she does about Rosa, she starts to reference the packet, but then realizes with it gone she can't prove anything. Played with when she later brings Dee Dee to attest to its existence, and Sergeant Hardison claimed he had no reason to disbelieve her, although his reaction when she didn't have it to show him earlier suggested he was at least skeptical (accusing her of being too into watching "cops and robbers" shows).
  • Jerkass: Eric, since he not only has a nasty, twisted sense of humor, enjoys mocking people's vulnerabilities, and taunts Sarah about the house before she learns the truth about the murders, but when she rebuffs his interest decides to set her up with Adam Holt, when even if he genuinely believes he didn't kill anyone or that it was an accident while out of his mind on meds, he still knows his friend has an instability to him and may possibly have committed rape; at the very least he's had questionable relationships with girls. And he finds this idea funny. In his defense, however, he didn't expect things to go as far or turn out as bad as they did, and as soon as he realizes she's in danger, he makes sure to call the caretaker for the private property where the lake is, thus saving her life.
  • Language Barrier: Rosa Luiz, being an illegal Mexican immigrant, only knew Spanish, so when her ghost reaches out to Sarah, there's a lot of difficulty in communicating. Eventually this is solved, somewhat, when Sarah buys an English-Spanish dictionary, plus bits of Spanish she remembers from school.
  • Near-Death Experience: The book is kicked off by one of these in Backstory, where an accidental drowning led to Sarah drifting out of her body before CPR and the doctors at the hospital are able to bring her back to life. The result is a Psychic Link with the Other Side which first manifests in an invisible spirit that haunts and watches her; when the Darnell family moves to Houston, Rosa's ghost makes use of it to reach out to her so her murder can be solved and she can rest.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Granted, he intended to drown Sarah in which case anything she might learn or feel in the process would not matter in the end, and he would have succeeded if not for Eric's intervention, but when Tony takes her to a lake he knows because it "means a lot to me", her psychic sensitivity allows her to pick up on Rosa's horror and distress regarding the area. As a result, when Sarah goes to the police later, she's not only able to realize he was trying to kill her and why, but that this place is where he buried Rosa's body—which along with the eyewitness in Lupita is the one missing element needed to convict him, something Sarah would never have been able to find otherwise. The fact the murder weapon is also with the body only makes this even more of a Hoist by His Own Petard moment.
  • Off on a Technicality: The other reason Adam Holt gets away with murder—because, without the eyewitness, murder weapon, or fingerprints, and with his blood type being very common so that the blood in the entry hall couldn't be matched to him (invokedthis was before DNA testing), the only way the prosecutor can try for a conviction is via Adam's own confession. However, he had only confessed orally, rather than in writing or on tape recording, which was not admissible under Texas law. The judge allowed it to be used as evidence despite the defense attorney reminding him of the law, and after the jury convicted him, his lawyer appealed on the basis of this and won.
  • Photo Doodle Recognition: How Sarah realizes that Tony is Adam Holt, after Rosa urges her to look at a clear picture of him.
  • Pull the Thread: After Rosa's packet is stolen, Sarah calls Eric to grill him about it, thinking either he or Adam are the only ones who could have done the deed. After he denies breaking in, and claims Adam is in California, with smooth, practiced lies, she falsely claims the thief didn't find Rosa's packet, causing him to slip up with a quickly cutoff denial. Downplayed, though, since this only confirms he knows more than he's telling rather than actually being the guilty party (who is most likely Adam, though this is never confirmed).
  • Rear Window Witness: Or in this case, Front Window Witness—the entry hall of the Holt house has huge windows beside the door so that, as Dee Dee points out, "anyone coming to the door can see inside." It turns out the pizza girl Darlene Garland saw Adam Holt murdering Rosa this way, which is why he dragged her inside and killed her too.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: Sergeant Hardison, the cop in charge of the Holt case, would be more than happy to reopen it and finally get a conviction. But he doesn't have much confidence when all he has to go on is Sarah's unsubstantiated (if intriguing) ideas, a packet she can't show him because it was stolen, and a ghost story she's afraid to tell him. However, he is very focused and alert when she first tells him of Rosa and her theory of why Darlene died, and once she confesses to being a psychic of sorts and is able to identify Adam Holt being in town and trying to kill her, he takes her much more seriously. The end result is finding an eyewitness in Lupita and, eventually, the murder weapon and Rosa's body.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Essentially this was how Adam got away with murder, since his parents got him a high-powered defense attorney to beat the charges against him and come up with a ridiculous Insanity Defense. Also, when the Holts came home and found the blood in the entry hall, instead of confronting their son or calling the police they decided to remove all evidence of Rosa having lived there, trusting in their riches and status in the community vs. those of illegal immigrants (if the truth ever came out) to protect them and their son.
  • Significant Monogram: Nixon seems to love this trope. Here it appears in the form of Adam Holt taking on the identity of Anthony (Tony) Harris.
  • The Sociopath: Adam Holt, based on the awful things he used to torment Rosa with, and that he seems to have no real reason to kill her other than this; if the story Dee Dee tells of him raping a girl is true that certainly doesn't help his case (Lack of Empathy is definitely a trait he possesses). To Sarah he later comments that she's "never had to battle with evil. I don't think you could even recognize it", implying he has, and also that she should not judge him because she can't understand him. This would make him a rather self-aware sociopath, but knowing what he was doing was evil didn't change the fact he still did it, and the way he acts when holding her hostage in the police car, and as he's led away in handcuffs, certainly suggests a lack of remorse, repentance, or anything but a dark It's All About Me nature.
  • There Are No Therapists: Played with. The family doctor who first diagnoses Sarah isn't a therapist, nor does he actually treat her, but he does offer (and without really judging the merit of the idea one way or the other) what seems to be a true explanation for her psychic abilities. When Sarah's mother later insists on an actual therapist, he genuinely wants to help Sarah but, of course, refuses to believe in anything supernatural, insisting that it's all in her head and a manifestation of her fear of death/drowning, with the details of Rosa and the murder being created from the news reports/inspired by the packet she found. note  In any event, his therapy ends up pointless since, as Sarah says, Rosa is quite real, and it's only by solving the murders and getting Adam put away that she is able to heal and move on with her life. Though it is possible he helped put her on the path to eventually conquer her fear.
  • This Is Reality: Amusingly, when Mr. Darnell tells the rest of his family the story of the murder and subsequent trial, Sarah's mom complains about this trope, that "it's so different on those television shows, they're always trying the wrong person but the attorney holds up something like a matchbook cover or a piece of an earring and says to the guilty person, 'This means you were the real murderer!' and they arrest the guilty one and let the innocent one go." Mr. Darnell then notes "it's a lot more complicated than that in real life."
  • Unfinished Business: What compels the thrust of the plot—Rosa's ghost wants her body found, her murder solved, and her murderer brought to justice before she can rest and move on.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Apparently Sarah's brush with death has made her this, since it attracted Rosa to her and tied them together. Though it should also be noted that she doesn't just have a ghost latch onto her Psychic Link, but her family's move just so happens to place her in a haunted house with a murder mystery to solve.