Back in December 2015 I read and reviewed Matt Ingwalson’s first two self-published Owl and Raccoon novellas and, impressed with their quality, undertook what has since become my Adventures in Self-Publishing in which I work through impossible crime fiction following a non-trad route to its audience.
This month I’ll be reviewing four more self-published works in my Tuesday posts, and it’s a particular excitement to me that James Scott Byrnside’s second novel, The Opening Night Murders (2019), will be the first title reviewed. Excitement because not only was his debut Goodnight Irene (2018), in which P.I.s Rowan Manory and Walter Williams get caught up in all manner of impossible happenings at a house party taking place during a torrential rainstorm, somewhat magnificent, but because The Opening Night Murders — which sees an apparently impossible murder committed in front of 200 witness on-stage at a theatre — continues that promise and…well, more about that on Tuesday.
To further stoke your interest, here’s an interview I conducted with Byrnside via email regarding his own writing process, the appeal of impossible crimes, the difficulties in clewing, and all manner of other stuff besides. It runs to about 5,000 words — I was having a lot of fun — but you’re safe from spoilers for either book (a few details of Irene are mentioned, but nothing too heavy), and there’s even a hint of what’s to come in Book 3. And so, without further ado…
You have said on your blog that reading The Red House Mystery (1922) by A.A. Milne lead you to the works of Christianna Brand, to whom you dedicated your first novel, Goodnight Irene (2018). How long ago do you reckon that was? And was this your first experience with classic detective fiction, or had you read much prior to Milne?
It was January of 2017. While surfing YouTube, I came upon a recording of TRHM and was unusually touched by the dedication to his father. Seeing how old the book was, I knew it had to be in the public domain, so I stopped listening and downloaded a pdf. It was the first time I had read for pleasure in over ten years. I’ll always be grateful to Milne for that.
I had a brief dalliance with detective fiction In high school — some Christie and Doyle. However, my primary connection with detectives was through cinema. It didn’t matter how good or bad the film. If a detective gathered the suspects into a room and explained who did it, I would watch. I also quite enjoyed seeing The Mousetrap on a junior high field trip.
So was this rediscovery of detective fiction as an adult that spurred you on to write? Or did you always have an itching to write something and the pieces suddenly fell into place once you’d seen what the genre could do?
Oh, definitely the latter. I had written screenplays, plays, and short stories before. What the genre gave me, more than anything, was purpose. To fool the audience is the name of the game. Theme, character, messaging — they come after the purpose of the plot, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Detective fiction relies on the author playing the game correctly. How many ways are there to present a locked-room murder? Twenty. And they’ve all been done to death. So how is it that some nobody like me can write one into my first novel and fool anyone? Details. Playing the game correctly. It’s like magic. Mysteries will never die — just a bit of effort will rejuvenate the most tired cliche.
I’ve said before that telling a detective story is like telling a joke — if you get to the punchline but omit a key detail, the joke’s not funny, in the same way that revealing a solution without declaring the clues is massively unsatisfying. And both become harder to genuinely surprise the audience with on account of their ubiquity. You say it just requires a bit of effort, so where does the majority of that effort go in your writing? Do you come up with a great piece of misdirection first and try to turn that into the workings of a crime, or do you typically start with a crime and then work out how to direct away from it?
I always start with the main murder. (I’m sure there are great novels about missing jewels, but I have no interest in reading them — nothing creates tension quite like an unknown killer.) Once I have the murder figured, it’s pretty easy to cast suspicion to other characters. The double meaning action (say a character is furious that food was spilled — perfectly natural — because he had poisoned it — hidden murderous intentions) isn’t too much trouble to think of; a lot of this comes when the characters are built: their personalities usually shape what you can get away with in terms of misdirection.
Motive is a great tool. As you know, The plot of The Opening Night Murders hinges on motive. Most people have plenty of reasons to commit murder, they just don’t do it. Conversely, how often have you read about a real-life murder committed for the stupidest reason? This is where misdirection can be really impressive. Carr was fantastic at it. The motive is told in an offhand way that makes it seem minor. In the end, we find out it was the murderer’s obsession. I love that technique. The killer in Crooked House (1949) by Agatha Christie makes sense as a killer and as an obsessive. Both scenarios fit him/her.
Carr has plied some exquisite misdirection over the years — my personal favourite is the questions to be asked after the show in The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939). Equally he’s guilty of some heinously unfair behaviour, such as telling an out-and-out lie in the prologue of one of his books — presumably to direct you away from a murderer he may have felt too easy to spot.
I may play with narrative misdirection a bit in the next book. It feels a bit unfair, but as long as I’m not lying — I remember watching Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) and feeling betrayed because he presented a flashback that didn’t happen — I figure I’m okay. I would never write narration that isn’t true, but let’s just say I’ll be changing up misdirection techniques in the future.
On the subject of misdirection, have you ever removed a clue or the mention of some point because you felt it wasn’t obfuscating enough, or because it made things too obvious? That desire to be fully honest must wrestle sometimes with the desire to still baffle your readers as much as possible…
It’s the other way around. I always feel like the mystery is too easy to solve. Only after reading a draft, again and again, can I see that there isn’t enough for the reader to go on, and I have to weave more clues in. It never seems that way while I’m writing though. Because I’ve gone through the plot so many times, the clues appear to me as if they’ve been highlighted. In Goodnight Irene, that clue about Tellum’s thumb being bitten — God, I thought the game was over. Things were a little better in The Opening Night Murders. I think chapter one is chock-full of clues. Of course, the reader won’t know what they mean and half of them will be forgotten, but part of the mystery is all there.
Sometimes the exact phrasing will give away too much. Just one tiny example: In Goodnight Irene, Lasciva lamented that his nephew played cricket instead of baseball and that a left-handed hitter could make a lot of money in America. Later, Manory remarked to Williams that Charles signed with the wrong hand. Talk about force-feeding the reader! I ended up eliminating the clue altogether and just producing it as an example of Manory’s detective skill. It was enough that he threw away Charles’ signature without looking at it. The moment became one more confounding element to the madness pile.
It’s funny you mention that, because as soon as it came up I was immediately thinking “Ooop, hang on — this is going to be relevant at some point!” because I don’t think a detective fiction author has ever made a point about what hand someone does something with, or on which lapel they wear a brooch, without it playing into the solution in some meaningful way.
One more thing about clueing. You mentioned on your podcast about the thrill of correctly deducing some of the mystery, and how a good mystery will clue you into some correct conclusions while still baffling you as to the grand scheme. With The Opening Night Murders, I really wanted to make the reader feel smart about the wrong things. I presented a few false conclusions and gave (what I considered) well-hidden clues pointing to those blind alleys. In my perfect world, the reader will read the conclusion with a smug, knowing grin that slowly disappears. They were right about the wrong thing. I’m sure there’ll be somebody out there who deduces everything perfectly, though. (I look forward to your derisive comments!)
See, I get caught out by the stuff that I know I’m supposed to be looking at, but which catches me unawares: the chewing gum that Manory finds under the Lasciva’s desk in Goodnight Irene, for instance — that threw me completely. It’s this gorgeous study, beautiful furniture, everyone there would treat it with respect…the sudden, unexpected oddness of gum under the desk really brought me up short and left me scrambling for an explanation. Equally, that short scene in The Opening Night Murders — “Hey, genius” — had me desperate to fit it in somewhere to no avail.
Conversely, then, have you ever devised a clue that you just don’t think can be communicated accurately enough to include fairly? I’m thinking of the way small elements of Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie or The Blushing Monkey (1953) by Roman McDougald rely on smell…which the reader simply can’t know. The written word inevitably has its limitations, I’m just wondering if that’s been a problem for you yet.
The only difficulties I have along these lines are of the head hopping variety. I write third person limited narration, where the golden rule is usually to put the “camera” over one person’s shoulder, and have it remain there while occasionally going into that one character’s inner monologue. For clueish thoughts in the suspect’s heads, this presents severe limitations. So many times, I’ve wanted to go inside other characters’ heads within a scene. I end up doing it anyway, but far less than in the various draft stages. One use in The Opening Night Murders is the image Edward has in chapter 5. I wanted to cast a bit of suspicion on him and I didn’t feel like dialogue would quite capture how he saw the scene.
I know this isn’t about your question, but while I’m on this track — the biggest problem with POV is with the impossible crime itself. Sure, you can have the murder happen before the book starts, but that’s not fun. The reader wants to be there, to see multiple angles. In TONM, I go onstage, backstage, and in the seats just to give a more complete view. In my third book, I had plans to do it in three parts with part one being first person. I quickly scrapped it. I need a full view of that murder. In the barn, from the window, and out in the snow. First person would take that away. And quite frankly, third person limited isn’t doing what I want either. This is why I’m insistent on head hopping at the right times. Point of view gives me much more trouble than sensory clues!
Moving way from plot, one of the things I’ve especially enjoyed about these books — quite apart from you smuggling some infernally smart impossibilities right under my nose — is the relationship between Manory and Williams. I can see how two detectives might help with the point of view issue you mention above, as not only are they able to split up and cover more ground, but also people might let slip in Williams’ company something they may guard a little more closely from Manory. But in terms of the pure relationship — the easy badinage, the concern they clearly have for each other — does writing that make a nice break from trying to obscure clues and forward the plot, or is capturing them equally as brow-furrowing?
‘A nice break’ is a good way to put it. In one sense, they’re already pre-written. If they’re in a room together, discussing the case or shooting the shit, the scene writes itself. That’s something I have to guard against (along with them getting metaphysical — realizing they are in a murder mystery and commenting on it). It wasn’t my plan to continue with them in the second book. However, it is tremendously appealing to keep the same detectives. It speeds the writing up, the reader automatically becomes more involved in the story (they aren’t asking, “Who are these people?”), and the incremental changes of a longer series allow for some profound sense of character to build rather naturally.
I didn’t want to have an idiotic Watson. They need each other. Williams is not our lens into the mystery. He is Manory’s lens into the world, just as Manory is Williams’ lens into detection. That’s where a lot of their camaraderie comes from. I never got the sense that Poirot needed Hastings, and that bothered me. Yes, they were friends, but it almost seemed masochistic at times. Manory and Williams are truly equal in a sense.
In Manory and Williams’ interactions I get a tingle or two of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin — is that deliberate, or am I imagining things?
For sure, but there are a lot of duos they take after. The good-natured exasperation of friendly opposites has a long history. I’d say Williams is a relative of Goodwin. Manory is more alien. The genius detective is often portrayed as otherworldly. I wanted to push it a bit further. I think, in the end, he’s just terribly disappointed with people. One other thing about him, he’s often wrong. That was really important to me. I didn’t want to write the kind of detective who guesses it right away and then works towards it, keeping the solution to himself the whole time
So, given his slightly ‘alien’ nature — the verbosity and precision in the way in talks in particular — was the decision to make Manory incurably ill motivated by a desire to humanise him? Or was it just to guarantee that you wouldn’t get stuck writing him for 25 years?
There are 3 reasons.
1. I’ve gotta make trouble for the protagonist. I love Philo Vance and Hercule Poirot, but do you ever get the sense they’re really in any danger? Those scenes in the forest (from Irene) and later in the passage were meant to be harrowing. He’s got to struggle and be vulnerable. I ‘attacked’ his heart and nervous system.
2. It’s my version of a character arc. In Irene, he triumphs. The final summation ‘restores’ his health. In TONM, it’s a different time and no solving of any case is going to help him. This was due to the time frame: The Roaring Twenties vs the Great Depression. Indeed, an argument could be made that TONM is less fun than Irene. I would dispute that, but I’d understand. It’s certainly a more pessimistic novel.
3. I’m the same as everyone else. I struggle with getting older, and that’s going to come out in my characters. Also, like Manory, I’ve always felt older than I am. I remember liking old music in grade school (primary). Most of the filmmakers, writers, and musicians I love are dead. When Christine tells Manory that he looks older and he thanks her, that’s only half sarcastic. His illness/aging has, in some way, always been with him.
You mentioned above that you hadn’t originally intended to write The Opening Night Murders with Manory and Williams, and you’ve said elsewhere that you wouldn’t want to write the same detective characters for too long. Having put in the effort on all these fronts to create sympathetic and capable core characters, the allure would surely be to stick with them so that you’re freed up to concentrate on plot — so what about that doesn’t appeal to you?
Freeing myself to concentrate on the plot is appealing. The problem with these detectives is they don’t surprise me any more. I know exactly what Manory and Williams will do — always. Also, familiarity makes me lazy. There was an early draft that actually contained the phrase, INSERT WILLIAMS GAG HERE. Eventually, that kind of stuff is going to bite me in the ass. So many of the twists and turns in the latest book came from creating the characters. Timothy is a great example. He wasn’t much of a personality at first, but then the plot required him to do certain things. Well, what kind of character would do those things? I discovered him. That leads to creativity.
Now, that’s not to say I’ll never go back to Manory and Williams. I’m looking for ways to write quicker — both books took one year from outline to print, and having the same characters could speed things up. I may get a good idea for a case and use that familiarity to whip up a Manory/Williams manuscript in three months. But these two characters aren’t going to define me. I have other detectives with stories to tell.
I have to ask you about impossible crimes. So far you’ve written an impossible poisoning, an impossible locked room vanishing, an impossible resurrection of sorts, and an impossible death with no apparent cause, and it sounds like your third novel, The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire, will contain a no footprints problem. Are you deliberately working through the various types of impossible crime, or is it just a case of writing what occurs to you?
I write what occurs to me at the time. There’s no grand plan to tick everything off the impossibility checklist. With Irene, I started with the main locked-room impossibility. Instead of asking how I would do that, I asked myself what would lead to that happening. The other impossibilities came quite naturally — and it shows in the simplicity of their solutions. TONM was more of an attempt to top Brand. “Oh yeah, I’m gonna do with a spotlight shining on the stage and no one will be hidden and everyone will see it happen.” Then, of course, came the moment when I said, “Oh fuck. How am I gonna do that?”
The footprint problem is next because Barrington/Vampire is heavily inspired by Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot. I didn’t know that when I was outlining it; once the structure became apparent, I realized that it’s got the same breathless feel to it (hopefully) and the same sense of isolation. I started with the main impossibility, but I’ve got a few others to play with. Variations of the locked room will factor in all the murders.
I imagine the inspiration for these impossibilities comes from a mixture of pure ideas and details gleaned from research. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve found yourself researching in the writing of these books?
Well, that’s the joke, isn’t it? Murder mystery authors and serial killers have very similar browsing histories. I’m not sure exactly what the weirdest thing I’ve ever looked up is, but the one I’ve gone back to again and again is optography. It’s such a delicious idea to me. Talk about a dying message! Unfortunately, I’ve just never been able to bring myself to believe it (I think some experiments were done on a chicken, but the image they got was too blurry). Of course, my game doesn’t require me to be exact with my science. I only need a little bit of reality, enough to make it just barely passable. However I do quite a bit of research about the time. And I look at a lot of old photographs to get inspiration
If you’ve never quite convinced yourself to include optography, is there a darling you have forced yourself to kill — an idea you loved and included, only to have to remove it for whatever reason?
Never a murder. It’s always been dialogue or (more frequently) a scene I included to give flavor or a sense of time and place. In Irene, Rowan’s trip to Morocco was once a botched plot element. I ended up keeping it as a little joke — “I have been to Morocco. Monkeys did not chop off this man’s head with an ax.”
There was a scene in TONM I was quite fond of. It was a dialogue between Manory and a newspaper columnist that took place on the ride to Baraboo. During my research, I read a 1930’s article explaining why the Depression had not caused America to succumb to either far end of the ideologies. “There’s so little talk of revolution from the middle class, the bourgeoisie has to bring it up. It’s a riot.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t tie it into the murder plot, and it read like dead weight on the story.
Getting back to the impossibility angle, it struck me that I can’t make myself believe optography, but I can suspend my disbelief for some crazy things. To my mind, there is a pleasure-of-the-presentation/disappointment-of-the-reveal ratio that must be satisfied. There a fine essay on Carr called Literary Cracksman [written by Tom and Enid Schantz for the introduction of the Carr/Dickson novels published by the Rue Morgue Press] which compares impossible crime fiction with magic. Magicians have an advantage; they never have to reveal the trick. Their work remains in the blissful realm of mystery forever. Writers have to reveal the trick. The horrible part is, every reveal is disappointing. Think about it, even the brilliant ones you really love are still a let down from the problem that came before it. You just allowed yourself to believe the solution in order to enjoy it. Mastering the pleasure of the presentation will go a long way in allowing me to push the believability of the solution.
I don’t think I can agree with you there — sure, some impossibilities, even most of them, have varying degrees of disappointment in their reveals, but the brilliant ones are brilliant because of how superbly they resolve it all. Whistle Up the Devil (1953) by Derek Smith, Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand, The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson, Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny, Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek…isn’t it doing these books and authors a huge disservice by essentially putting the intelligence of their reveals down to a sort of self-delusion?
In no way do I mean to sound negative about it. I love the solutions to all those books you mentioned. But even the brilliance of the various solutions in Invisible Green is not more satisfying to me than the game it offers along the way. The conclusion must be disappointing in comparison. There’s no other possibility. Of course, I have to know how it was done. I can’t stop before the last chapter and say, “I’m good.” That’s insanity.
One of the elements of suspense in any mystery is the suspense of that forthcoming conclusion. “Don’t let me down…too much.” I can go back and admire its construction, but that mystery element is what I really crave. There’s a high when the game is wrapped up brilliantly, but then a little something dies inside of me. The wonderful nightmare is over. And if the solution strikes too many false notes? I don’t even get that high. That’s like being killed twice.
I think the comparison to the magic trick is instructive. Have you ever seen a trick and then learned how it was done? It’s a horrible disappointment, no matter how clever the method. I would guess a narrative element encourages us to enjoy discovering how it was all done more than we should. Self-delusion is a strong noun. I don’t think I’d go that far. Coerced delusion? I’ll qualify my previous answer: If the problem is grand enough and gives me enough pleasure, I’ll be more accepting of the solution.
Interestingly, as a reader, I take the contrary perspective: an enjoyable solution will elevate a seemingly standard problem — see Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy — and something that appeared a brilliant problem will be tarnished by a dull answer — see Seeing is Believing (1941) by Carter Dickson. I always wonder how many impossibilities, or maybe just puzzle plots in general, are written from the answer backwards, knowing that the answer has to be revealed, and whether authors doing that ever seek to simplify their plots so the solution doesn’t disappoint. I suppose a dull answer to a dull problem makes that gap between anticipation and reality of the solution smallest — but wouldn’t you rather an author over-reached themselves and had a fascinating time doing so?
Absolutely. The more impossible the crime the better. Most of the stuff I read has wonderful, baffling problems. Take Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher — excellent problem. The solution? When I first read it, I told myself, “Look, it’s original and it’s…okay screw it. You’re just going to have to accept it.” And I did. And I love that book. But if I was required to defend its solution…let’s just say I’d be sweating on the witness stand.
Plotting backward is the typical tactic for mysteries, I’ve heard and read that many times. But for me it usually starts with the crime. Both of my books started with an image of the crime, not the solution. In some ways that’s an unnatural process. I try to make the solution come from the characters and what they are capable of (or have access to). In Goodnight Irene, there was originally only one person in that room when the door was closed. The manner of death was the same, though. “How the hell am I going to do that?” — the solution came when I discovered the characters and the plot(s).
Has that also been your experience case with The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire so far?
Oh, yeah. That book is still in its nascent stage, but I’ve got those murders figured. The images came first. Then, I figured out who would do such dastardly things. Finally, I learned how.
For a while now, I’ve maintained that The Lord of Misrule (1994, tr. 2006) by Paul Halter is his attempt to retell genre classic The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr and find new solutions to the problems posed in that book without reworking the exact situations. In light of your comments above about taking on the challenge Brand set in Death of Jezebel to inform the focus of TONM, and especially given your working from situation to solution, are there any novels where you think it would be interesting to take problems they pose and reframe them in order to explore the possibilities for alternative solutions?
Hmmm. I don’t know if I’d frame it that way, but probably. It’s more like taking certain elements from problems and reworking them. A little bit of this and a touch of that. One murder I have planned uses (sort of) a technique in one of the more famous mysteries, but then I compound the problem. I guess that would be my answer. I wouldn’t rework the solution so much as compound the problem. It would have to be more difficult in the presentation.
You recently wrote on your blog a very instructive (and spoiler-heavy) post about the various elements of Goodnight Irene that with hindsight you either like or don’t like. Apart from speeding up the process of writing a book, how would you like to measure the progress you make as an author over your next few novels? Is it possible to determine as you write whether you’re happier with your work, or are such comparisons only possible in hindsight?
Unfortunately, hindsight is still the best way to see things. Elements that make perfect sense at the time become obviously poisonous after publication. One interesting thing I discovered is that I read better in book format. Not the printed page, mind you, but the correctly sized pages of a book — I think for my next book, I’ll slap a quick cover on it midway and order a proof copy to do my rounds of editing.
I think of mysteries as machines. They either work or they don’t. I can become a better narrator, and my character work can improve, but if the machine doesn’t function, all is lost. I’ll measure my progress by how well the machine functions. Irene had some glitches. TONM has far fewer. The best ones I’ve read work effortlessly.
Which particular mystery novels would you pick out as being especially well-constructed?
I’ve read a lot of naysayers’ comments as I’ve made my way through the blogosphere (and I know you aren’t a fan), but I’ll say that London Particular, a.k.a. Fog of Doubt (1952) by Christianna Brand is the most perfectly constructed whodunit I’ve read. The allotment of information is unparalleled. The spacing of the murders and our gradual understanding of why they were committed is stunning. If I’m allowed a moment of pretentiousness, it’s more a mystery of human desire than anything else. Think about where it starts and where it ends. For anyone who didn’t care for it, I’d recommend the audiobook. I rarely do that, but this one is fantastic.
As for impossible crime, The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) by Paul Halter is nothing but tiny fractions of information. I still don’t understand how it functions, but I’d say it’s perfect. The presentation of the problem is impeccably stark and the solution is so simple. It’s a book with no fat but a whole lot of flavor. I’d like to write that someday.
Invisible Green is remarkable for many things, but the prologue floored me. It shapes our view of the narrative so well. The effect is almost antagonistic to the reader. Such a dirty trick. I loved it.
Crooked House (oddly enough) is a perfect construction. I wouldn’t cut a word.
Finally, then, given your enthusiasm for those books, and especially given how difficult it can be to wrangle with the impossible crime, can you see yourself writing something non-impossible? The traditional detective story has huge scope to baffle the reader, and the inverted mystery requires possibly a higher degree of intelligence and insight to catch the criminal out while showing the reader everything. It’s obviously — ahem — impossible to know, but how does the notion of a James Scott Byrnside novel or short story without an impossible crime strike you?
I can see myself writing an out-and-out whodunit. While impossibilities deepen the mystery, the unknown killer in the group excites me just as much. The one promise I’ll make is never to torture anyone with literary fiction. If I ever attempt a novel about greed or loneliness or (God help us) the American Dream, I deserve to be locked up. That crime is worse than murder.
You can follow James Scott Byrnside on Twitter here, read Brad’s thoughts on Goodnight Irene here, TomCat’s thoughts here, and Bekir’s thoughts here.
The Opening Night Murders is released on June 3rd, and can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon. I’ll be posting my review on Tuesday, so I’ll hopefully see you then for that.