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.”