I started 2019 on The Invisible Event by sharing the wonderful news that Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside was a modern impossible crime novel we had legitimate reason to get excited about. And, excitingly, the end of that book promised a follow-up — titled Nemesis at the time — in 2019. And, one title-change later, no doubt on account of some has-been getting there first, here we are.
Picking up some eight years after their debut — and be aware that Byrnside indulges here in that classic trope of telling you who the killer was in an earlier book, so be sure to read that first if you haven’t already — this sees private eyes Rowan Manory and Walter Williams still engaged in what turns out to be another case of impossible murder…if only they could convince anyone else to see it that way:
Walter drank half his beer in one swig. “No one things it was foul play but us, and I have to be honest with you, my faith isn’t the strongest.”
“When we find out why she was killed, we will discover how she was killed.”
“Walter pulled back from the table. “You’ve told me the exact opposite before.”
“I’m sure of it. You used to say if we knew how it was done, we would learn why. I remember, clearly.”
“That’s because you don’t listen.”
The murder under discussion occurs during the opening night of new play The Balcony, written and directed by the one-handed, chain-smoking Jenny Pluviam and starring her older sister Lisa in the lead role. Having received a death threat a few days previously, Lisa engages Manory and Williams to shadow her at the theatre and, of course, this brings us into contact with the cast, their various relationships and furies, and the inevitable fallout that has been raging backstage this whole time.
Byrnside does a brave thing with this theatrical milieu in deliberately calling attention to the similarities to Christianna Brand’s theatre-set, impossible-death-on-the-stage, brain-twisting masterpiece Death of Jezebel (1948) by having a character reference having appeared in the play that is performed in that book (not in the book itself, you understand, since that’s still 13 years away in this universe) and from then on the little Brandian touches can’t help but leer out at you: the tiny cast — even if Manory and Williams do lament that six suspect is far too many, which doesn’t remain the case for long — the bold starkness of the impossibility as presented, and especially the moment when, in the final rehearsal, Byrnside gathers everyone on stage and then tells you in his narrator’s voice that “one of them had planned the perfect murder”. It’s no surprise that he’s so keen to lean into such beats, as Goodnight Irene was dedicated to Brand (you can read more about that here), but it takes balls to welcome such comparisons so openly, even though you’re not trying to write the sort of book Brand wrote, and you have to admire Byrnside’s confidence.
The thing is, that confidence isn’t entirely misplaced. Firstly, Byrnside’s writing isn’t a million miles from Brand, and not just because he has her occasionally head-aching habit of changing the source of perspective without warning. Byrnside’s tone is as seamless a fusion of the noirish P.I. novel and the classic detective novel as I’ve ever encountered, with that sort of studied casual archness of the former that trips so wonderfully across the brain:
She threw her pack [of cigarettes] to the edge of the table. “Join the party, Walter.”
Walter scrunched up his face. “Manory smokes enough for the both of us.” He hovered over the pack on the desk. “Beechnuts? Aren’t those men’s cigarettes?”
“Isn’t that the same pansy bowtie Marlene Dietrich wore in Morocco?”
He nodded. “Touché, Miss Pluviam. Touché.”
And yet when Manory, say, makes various deductions about the play in the opening chapter, or when the puzzle aspects begin to come into focus — witness the possible spin on things Manory proposes at about the three-quarter mark — it doesn’t feel like you’re suddenly lurching gears into a different setup. Brand’s tone doesn’t have the terseness of Byrnside, but she was equally about the slow build of remorseless pressure on her core suspects, and Manory has in his ceaseless drive for the truth at the heart of things rather more of the emotional engagement of Inspector Cockrill — who was frequently happiest hounding his quarry and, as in The Crooked Wreath, a.k.a. Suddenly at His Residence (1944) could be found “fanning to a blaze the embers of shock and restraint and shame” — than the studied remove of the Poirots, Fells, Kincaids, Lancelot Carolus Smiths and others of this era.
Secondly, the plot here offers multiple interpretations as Brand managed at her most devious. I’m not completely sure it all works — we’ll of course get to that — but once Manory starts to hold forth in the final couple of chapters on the patterns that have emerged in this investigation before laying the whole thing bare you can see why Byrnside would be so proud of having followed in Brand’s footsteps. Yes, to make this work he has a slightly more scattershot investigative approach than one would necessarily expect from a straight detective novel — that’s again where that canny subgenre fusion comes into play — but, my goodness, when you see how it’s all first together and comes apart and fits together and comes apart and fits together…good heavens, Brand would be delighted. That scheme as discussed at the 75% mark would be the sort of thing a minor novelist from the Golden Age would happily tie things up with — indeed, you’ll’ve read a novel somewhere along the lines that does exactly that — and so to add rococo flourishes to it is the very least we’d hope from someone wishing to give the puzzle plot the respect it deserves. But the manner of the complexity here is something else, and abundant in the intelligent design that the best the Golden Age had to offer.
Unlike Murder in the Family a.k.a. The Murder in Gay Ladies (1936) by James Ronald, Byrnside doesn’t have Brand’s intent with character but, as say, I don’t think he’s trying to. He uses types here to enable some decent, surprising reversals — or perhaps to simply set you up for expecting them and then to deliberately confound your expectations — and is also able to indulge in these freer times with a possibly more honest account of sexual and social proclivities and liberation: of infidelity, of drug use, of theft, of the manipulation of others for our own ends. This enables an additional level of freedom in the setup of a later murder, too, which is especially bloody for a quite genius reason that you have a feeling the editors of the Golden Age would have blanched at. And, for me, the real joy of discovering Byrnside’s writing is seeing how determined he is to keep in the classic footsteps of the genre at its most complex — to see him play the puzzle plot game so effervescently — without keeling over in slavishness to ideas that would be flavourlessly reheated were they simply trotted out for the umpteeth time.
And so among what feel like gloriously rich clues in the Agatha Christie vein — “That voice. Where have I heard that voice? I must remember” — and the repurposing of John Dickson Carr’s 1930s neologism “ginch” to youthful slang ends you also get sequences of astonishing freshness like the opening of chapter 6 in which Williams discusses the case with a barman, laying out all the contradictions and complexity to that point with a wistfully preposterous air of self-knowing, and this sits alongside lines like “the sublime satisfaction of smoke flooded into his blackened lungs” without ever veering into the hardboiled parody that such expression would imply. Byrnside can really write — this is a brilliant tonal piece, full of light and shadow, and building beautifully on the century of detective fiction that has come before it, paying homage without ever suffering as a result, and bringing something fresh and exciting to the table. Yes, he’ll probably read this, but I’m not one to lavish praise purely for the sake of politeness. There are not accolades enough for what he’s achieving here, playing the game magnificently and with a hopefully long and varied career ahead of him.
“Let’s hope so…!”
And so, how’s that impossibility?
In all honesty, it’s very clever while also perhaps a little too clever. The manner of the death — and you’ll notice I’m not describing it, be it a stabbing or a vanishing murderer or whatever, and I think you should come to this relatively ignorant of what unfolds — is smart, and not something I had anticipated despite there being a good couple of pointers to what was coming. One regard of it — the vector, shall we say — crops up fairly last minute and a little out of nowhere, and I’m not entirely sure how one would go about making the…object needed even in 1935, but I’m willing to accept that as a method of killing someone this would definitely work and shows some canny invention. My biggest issue is the explanation, which is a little garbled (one of the many definitions of the word _o_t becomes important out of nowhere, and at first I had no idea what it was referring to) and the explanation would have significantly benefited from a diagram. I believe it works, and after a little dwelling on it I can more or less picture it working, but at that crucial revelation it’d be more effective if I wasn’t required to do quite so much of the realising myself.
However, the focus is really more the brilliance of the structure here, and those whip-smart, devilishly cunning switchbacks that tumble out in the closing stages, for which mere applause will not suffice. I don’t read enough current fiction to say it with any authority, but I’d happily declare Byrnside nonpareil in plotting stakes among modern authors on this evidence alone. It’s mesmerising, intoxicating performance, and betokens a real talent on the rise. It also helps that this takes place in a world that feels realistic, with the background of 1935 seeping through in obvious ways that stop short of bludgeoning you with how Very Nineteen Thirty-Five it all is: the notion of a woman directing a play being seen as “an eccentric strategy”, the fomenting social dissatisfaction through Communist marches, protests over civil rights, and a series of terrorist bombings being used for political leverage. Equally the social milieu, with an emerging drug scene and the louche characters who would emerge in such an environment, play a part without ever forcing that they’re playing a part. The hardest part of a historical novel is often balancing the history, and — while I could do without the logical time-loop that appears to be his debut novel existing as a novel in this, its own sequel — this is very much a book that uses its setting rather than a generic mystery that happens to be set at that time.
There’s much talk throughout of Manory and Williams retiring to California at the end of this case — “Everyone’s pretty over there. They ain’t ugly like you and me” — and if this is the last we see of them I would miss them. The precise, verbose nature of Manory’s speech, the implications of illness that sit behind all his actions, the camaraderie he and Williams enjoy through the subtle digs and wordplay (“Should I slap more on?”), they’re quite the pair. It’s been a demanding, draining couple of cases, though, and you wouldn’t begrudge them retirement, however. And so long as the end of them isn’t the end of James Scott Byrnside, I guess I’ll live. He may yet be the most exciting talent to emerge in the impossible crime novel in the 21st century. And it’s still early days, too, so just think what could be ahead. I now have a year to wait from The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire, but you should go and buy this now. It was released on 3rd June, so go, go, go…!
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I can’t give you too many exact details about this intricate, maze-like plot, littered with clues, but the second murder deserves a mention. A murder that’s the exact opposite of the carefully planned, coolly executed murder of Lisa Pluviam. The second, gory murder was a frenzied killing carried out with a straight razor and kitchen knife. However, the murderer turned out to have a logical reason to go to town on this victim that you normally only see in Japanese shin honkaku mysteries, in which a dismembered or mutilated body often turns out to be a key-piece of the puzzle. Byrnside truly is a neo-orthodox mystery writer!
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: In the end, I heartily recommend The Opening Night Murders. Yes, it feels choppy at points, and there are some awkward transitions in the latter third. (One of the worst of these occurs at the most devastating moment in the novel.) But it is a mystery told with reverence for the past without a slavish dependence on it, and with an astonishing sense of authority in one who has come upon the genre so recently.
The novels of James Scott Byrnside:
1. Goodnight Irene (2018) 2. The Opening Night Murders (2019)
3. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020)