#480: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside

Goodnight Irene

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.

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“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.

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“Phew!”

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.

Goodnight Irene newIn 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.

Happy New Year, everyone!

~

Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.

39 thoughts on “#480: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside

  1. Thanks for the review, and good to hear that this work of humble origin is a winner. 🤩 Not to say economically priced and readily available on my local Kindle store. How can anyone resist??

    Hope you’re enjoying the Carr title – I’ve reserved it to be my second-last foray into Gideon Fell. So I’m hoping it receives a five-star review. 🙃

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    • The plan was to stumble upon works that showed such promise, and Robert Innes and now Byrnside are hopefully just the tip of the iceberg. I had a feeling there was great stuff out there…I’m just lucky to have found so much of it so quickly.

      As for Carr…should hopefully finish it tonigh, so I’ll let you know on Thursday 😛

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  2. Oh my goodness! I actually listened to you this time and purchased my first self-published novel! All my feelings about the form are riding on your review. No pressure . . .

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  3. This seems like something I’d enjoy, so thanks for taking the plunge. I’ll keep an eye out for this one.

    And tomorrow I’ll try to find the time to listen to your latest podcast as well – it’s been a hectic New Year! 🙂

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    • Byrnside is a smart plotter and plays the game remarkably well — clues in dialogue, clues in action, being told the thing that doesn’t fit and still managing to overlook why…he’s got an impressive roster here on his first time out; I’m very excited to see what others think of this, because it’s honestly one of my favourite finds of the year (no, I don’t know which year…does anyone really care?!)

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    • Haha, too true. I bought the Kindle version, but liked it so much I may also get it in paperback…not yet, I’m not made of money, but in the future, like.

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      • First, thanks for taking 10 for the team …

        I am almost tempted. I confess I would be more tempted if you hadn’t just raved about Inspector French Gets A Lobotomy in equally glowing terms. Anyway I downloaded it …

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        • Okay, that didn’t last long.
          He needs an editor. Or at least a copy of Strunk & White!
          The problem, as ever with self-published books, is slack, wordy, adjective laden suck-ass prose. These are things editors look for!

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        • Ken, Ken, Ken…you need only start worrying when I being praising Galdys Mitchell and Michael Innes. That’s when I’m truly lost.

          Oh, god, someone’s going to remind me of this in ten years when I’ve started the joint fan club…

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  4. This really does sound splendid! So thank you for bringing this one to our attention, but damn you all the same. I was already scratching my head how to keep up with all the forthcoming releases, or how to trim my backlog, and here you casually toss another, unignorable title on the pile.

    Happy New Year!

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    • Splendid is a good word — it was a real delight reading this and being overtaken by just how much I enjoyed it and how playfully Byrnside pushes all his pieces around. If he improves from here, that second novel is really going to be something…

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  5. I’m stunned. Thank you for the kind review. It’s especially gratifying coming from such a well-read enthusiast of the genre. I spent a long time going through your podcast and posts, but I had to stop because my reading list has already quadrupled. This is a wonderful site you’ve created.

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    • Hey, welcome! Never mind the review, thank-you for writing such a carefully-constructed and intelligent detective plot that builds so samrtly on everything that has come before it — I’m delighted to be able to share the news of it with other enthusiasts, as we get let down so often and it’s very exciting to find someone unheralded to get excited about.

      Hope Nemesis is coming along well — is it another impossible crime? I mean, I loved Irene so much I’ll read it whatever, I’m just curious, like…

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      • Of course. I wouldn’t be interested in writing anything except impossible crime. With Irene, the idea was to make every single murder inexplicable with every trick I knew thrown in – the new book doesn’t go quite that far. My ultimate goal with every book is to walk the line between silliness and batshit insanity. Hopefully, the new one does that. It takes place during the performance of a play — 200 witnesses and no suspects. Lots of obvious clues.
        Unfortunately, I have been convinced to change the title. I loved Nemesis, but it will now be called The Opening Night Murders. (Ughh) One complaint I heard, again and again, was that no one could tell what type of book Goodnight Irene was. Apparently, it should take 3.4 seconds for a prospective reader to look at the cover and read the title to know exactly what genre they’re dealing with.

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        • My ultimate goal with every book is to walk the line between silliness and batshit insanity

          As writing philosophies go, this is one I can absolutely get behind. I’m a firm believer in the idea that the impossible crime is already a pretty wacky concept — ghostly killers, murderous curses, vanishing streets, etc — so the opportunity to really go for it can be seized in no better circumstance. Good heavens, Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot is arguably one of the finest impossible crime novels going, and so wildly off the chain that it almost defies belief.

          Could you compromise on The Nemesis Murders? Make everyone happy that way? Either way, I’m extremely excited about this — the theatre has produced some outstanding impossible crimes (Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith, say — and, yes, some dire ones along the lines of The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen) and your setup sounds awesome. Keep us updated; I’m thrilled to be able to spread the word about Goodnight Irene, and look forward to whatever else you have on the way.

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          • I wouldn’t be interested in writing anything except impossible crime.

            I like you!

            If you’re interested in further bloating your reading list, I have blog with more than 400 posts tagged as a locked room mystery. I know that’s hardly enough, but I’m working on it.

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            • Followed. Looks great. I enjoy reading murder mysteries of any bent. There is something special about an impossible crime though – it’s something like a sense of unease, a fog that hangs over the pages. I can put a bookmark in a thriller and get back to it in a week. I don’t think I’ve ever needed a bookmark for a locked room mystery, even the worst of them. I desperately need to know.

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  6. Finished it today. Starts well and gets even better when we get to the big house. I got a little confused in the middle and I sometimes didn’t know who was speaking in the dialogue exchanges. To be really picky I thought the ending was a bit rushed but the whole thing was so darned entertaining! The ‘whoever-whomever ‘ dialogue was hilarious. Good stuff.

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    • Huzzah! I’m delighted you enjoyed it so much, now it’s just a matter of waiting six months for the next one…and spreading the word about this one, too, of course 😆

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  7. Pingback: FLOOD, MUD, BLOOD: Goodnight Irene by James Scott Byrnside | ahsweetmysteryblog

  8. I read this in one sitting today. Thoroughly enjoyed it. It reminded me of “The Hangman’s Handyman,”“Murder On The Way!” and “The Red Right Hand.” Take away the strong language, tone down the gore and lose one or two small anachronisms and you could pass this off as a genuine Golden Age locked room mystery. Loved it.

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    • Mitch, I’m delighted to hear this — it’s not just me! With you and Brad on my side, we’re unstoppable in getting this book the attention it deserves.

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  9. Just wanted to let you know I read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it, but, because I’m still more than a month ahead of schedule, the review won’t appear on my blog until March 12. Anyway, I’m really glad you brought this one to our attention and look forward, even more now than before, to The Opening Night Murders.

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    • Of course you enjoyed it, you have good taste (mainly 😉) — will be really interested in your thoughts.

      And, holy hell, you’re over a month and a half ahead of yourself? How does anyone do this? I feel I should have cracked it by now, but, man, this blogging is a hungry baby.

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      • And, holy hell, you’re over a month and a half ahead of yourself? How does anyone do this?

        It happened by complete accident. Firstly, I had to reschedule some reviews for Philip Harbottle’s guest-post and my splurge of single short story reviews, together with the anime/manga reviews and the occasional filler-post, widened the gap even further. So nobody noticed what a slow month December really was for me. 🙂

        You might like to know that some very obscure (locked room) and Japanese mystery reviews are scheduled for late January and early February.

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        • You might like to know that some very obscure (locked room) and Japanese mystery reviews are scheduled for late January and early February.

          Always! The honkaku delights from LRI have made anything of that provenance a very enticing prospect…and, of course, we’re all desperate to know what you think of the new Soji Shimada transaltion. Bring ’em on!

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  10. Pingback: Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside – Suddenly at His Residence

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