My TBR for self-published impossible crime fiction alone is getting a little ridiculous, so for the month of January I’m going to promote this series to my Tuesday posts just to burn through a few. And we’ll start with an absolute belter in the shape of Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside.
I’ve been putting off writing this review since reading the book on Christmas Eve because I just don’t know where to begin, as I’m mindful of not spoiling too much about it so that others will have the opportunity to come to it pure. Essentially, it is the story of Chicago P.I.s Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, who are hired to protect the wealthy Robert Lasciva from an uncertain threat at his 55th birthday party. To keep things simple, Lasciva has invited only a small number of people out to his secluded country house — family members, two members of staff, and some near-as-dammit lifelong business associates — but things end up getting complicated: a biblical torrent of rain floods the surrounding country and wipes out the only bridge to the main road, and then the bodies start piling up…
“Do you suspect your business associates?”
“I don’t suspect. You suspect. That’s how this works.”
“Is there any other way to the manor besides the road? Could someone climb their way here?”
“I’d be impressed if someone tried to climb up this ridge just to kill me. I’d hire a guy like that.”
From such a — let’s admit it — generic setup, the usual thing is to stumble through some awkward misdirection, throw in a twist that makes very little sense, and then try to haul everything together with a big speech that sums up all the motivations and papers over the cracks threatening to pull it apart. You close the book with a sigh and reflect on how they don’t write ’em like they used to.
“Don’t tell me…”
Byrnside, in his debut, is far smarter than that. He has a line on structuring and clewing that is quite something to see: we’re legitimately back in the heyday of the detective novel with chewing gum turning up under an antique desk, dimensions of rooms being drawn into question, and some of the finest back-and-forthing over who’s dead and who’s responsible that I’ve read for a long time. Hell, the game-playing even starts before we even get to Lasciva’s house, since there’s a link between P.I. and intended victim that already has Manory questioning events and his role in them. And then, in impressively short order, we get an impossible poisoning, a murder in a locked and windowless room by a person who a) was physically incapable of performing it and b) has vanished into thin air, and — slightly later — the appearance of a dead body that isn’t anyone in the house and can’t be anyone from outside the house due to its inaccessibility.
So many classic detective tropes are crammed in here, it’s to be feared that they’ll be mishandled, even if the book is dedicated to Christianna Brand: just because you’ve read the best, doesn’t mean you’re able to walk their walk (just ask Sophie Hannah…’s more critical readers). We get explicit name-checks of A.A. Milne, Eden Philpotts, Edgar Wallace, S.S. van Dine, Gaston Leroux, and a brief mention of the solution to The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill — but, yes, even this proves nothing. I’ll put your minds at rest and say that while the solutions to the various impossibilities are not original (I love the poisoning, but have seen it deployed — far less successfully — in another book on this very blog) they’re worked perfectly into the narrative and find a way to create something immensely satisfying with ingredients that should have lost their appeal a long time ago (which is to say I shoulda seen ’em coming but was having too much fun to think about it). The way the murder is, shall we say, dressed up, too, has a whiff of something Ellery Queen would throw at you — there’s even a dying message, now I think about it — and it’s tied together with quite brilliant skill.
Best of all, it’s fun. The story doesn’t hang around in the early stages — the first chapter is effectively a standalone short story to introduce and explain Manory and Williams and their close working relationship betokened by easy badinage:
“Is it ‘Miss Brent’ or ‘Mrs. Brent’? Which honorific does one use for a widow?”
Rowan whispered, “Mrs.”
Walter narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure? Technically, the woman still has the man’s name. However, she’s not legally married to him.”
“For us it’s not a question of legality, but rather intent. ‘Mrs.’ is used when the widow is devastated at the death of her husband and mourns his loss. If the woman is happy to be rid of the man, the correct term is ‘Miss’. Do you recall Amanda Green?”
“The one with the legs?”
“Yes, the woman who had two legs.”
“I remember her well.”
“She was a ‘Miss’.”
…but once the murders begin things don’t let up. More than anything, with the increasingly bizarre and unfathomable crimes happening all around and isolated house, this legitimately brought to mind the pell-mell craziness of Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe…stripped of the pulp sensibilities, sure, and invested with rather more in the way of Noirish underpinnings given Byrnside’s laudable clarity with his atmospheric writing, but the comparison still holds:
The flame, so timid and fragile, struggled in defiance of the black maw. It offered sallow murmurs of light to combat the strangling, charcoal-etched space. At the farthest point of illumination, the images turned indistinct like an oil painting, suggesting rather than showing and finally fading into utter black.
As well as writing so cleanly, he sprinkles his text with enough flashes of oddness to feel like a deliberate choice rather than someone simply trying to ‘zany-up’ their dull manuscript: the prospect of an old case of Manory’s featuring “a woman strangled by her own cat”, for instance, or the moment during Manory’s summation when Williams needlessly and semi-playfully seeks credit for uncovering a particular clue. In less confident hands these would unsettle a difficult tonal balance, but Byrnside makes it work. Hell, he more than makes it work — he made me wish there was more of it, I could read this sort of thing all day.
The branching out into tonal flippancy (for want of a better term) is aided by the other end of things being rooted in fairly familiar territory, something which might bother some of you more than others. There’s no denying that the dynamic between Manory and Williams is very much in the Holmes-Watson dynamic, with Manory even saying at one point:
“Your deduction skills are quite raw, and you have a tendency to come up with pat conclusions, baffling motivations, and, quite frankly, backwards logic. But when I am struggling you always say something innocuous, a random thought that has nothing to do with the case. When you say this random thought, you light a flame inside me. The flame burns and eventually it explodes into a brilliant realization. Every time this happens. It is uncanny.”
Which couldn’t be more Holmesian if it tried. But, well, there’s a little more to Manory than just Holmes Redux, in the same way that there’s more to Byrnside’s writing and plotting than simply heating over old ideas in a predictable way. There’s a talent here with both detective and clewing that makes this something to get quite excited about — it’s pushed to the very limit of fair-play, with revelations in dialogue, in language, in action, in our detective outright telling us that something is a clue, and even in the Christie-ish use of apparently stock characters to hide something of motivations, workings, or both. The only real flaw I can find in the whole thing is the use of a particular device to shift suspicion onto a particular person…I don’t see how that would work even in the slightly one-step-removed reality this exists in, but it’s a minor point amidst a bravura performance. And the author spiel at the end promises another book — Nemesis — in 2019, for which I am already very hyped whether it be an impossible crime or not (though, y’know, fingers crossed after this performance). With more Byrnside and the return of Paul Halter, I’m now wondering what awfulness next year will throw at us to counter-act such rich anticipation.
In short, Goodnight Irene is the exact sort of thing I wanted to find in these self-published wanderings, and Byrnside joins Robert Innes, Lee Sheldon, and Robert Trainor on the list of self-published authors I want to see much more from. Don’t be put off by the dodgy Kindle conversion with its variable line-spacing and left indents — that’s not on Byrnside at all, and the increasingly-frenetic, gorgeously-marshalled, exquisitely weighted, and blisteringly intelligent content more than makes up for it. Whisper it, but one of the best original impossible crime novels of 2018 was self-published — and, man, what an exciting piece of news that is.