Nearly five years ago, in the innocent, heady days of December 2015, I read two self-published impossible crime novellas by Matt Ingwalson and was motivated into what has become my Adventures in Self-Publishing.
Forty-three reviews, and probably 60+ self-published works, later I think I can finally consider my belief realised: someone out there is self-publishing excellent impossible crime fiction in the style of the classics so many of us love that’s worthy of your time, effort, and money, and that won’t send the purists among you screaming from the room when what’s described as a “locked room mystery” turns out to be a closed-circle or alibi problem, or when it turns out to actually be an impossible crime but telegraphs its answers so far in advance they might as well be on the cover. That someone is, of course, James Scott Byrnside, who promises you the impossible and delivers just that, and then makes you wonder why you didn’t see how possible it was all along.
Byrnside’s third novel, The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) is easily his most accomplished to date, in terms of both the problems he sets and the rigour he assures in the solution: has a fictional detective ever before stood up before a hectoring audience insisting that he demonstrate all the clues leading to his solution? Usually the suspects sit meek and passive while it’s unfurled for them and the reader tuts and rolls their eyes at the lack of clarity, right? Well, here we get chapter and verse on every development and, so that you can honestly claim how much of it you solved yourself, eight questions in a challenge to the reader before it’s all spelled out.
How many of those answers did I correctly give, you want to know?
Moving on, let’s start at the beginning: we’re in Chicago in 1920 and millionaire Thomas Browning wishes to employ private investigator Rowan Manory to debunk a séance that is being put on at the behest of Browning’s superstitious business partner Hådd Mades (good luck figuring out how to pronounce that in your own mind). Perhaps Manory’s dose of demystification might help lift the influence the psychic Madame Cuchla has over him, and so put Browning’s mind at ease. And so we travel out to the remote Barrington Hills, meet a compact cast comprising Browning’s estranged daughter, his biographer, his somnambulant second wife, her doctor, and a scar-faced chauffeur. All manner of shenanigans go down at the séance — tables rock, faces appear, ghostly spirits knock and caper — and Rowan delivers a masterclass in debunkery that would warm the heart of the most ardent sceptic, and all is well.
And then the shit really hits the fan.
From here you’re best left on your own to let the madness unfurl, knowing nothing more than that a snowstorm hits and the inclusion of the map and floorplans on the cover is delightful in both presentation and how much it helps. The ensuing impossibilities — there are, to my mind, three that count, plus one in the history of the narrative that…doesn’t — are rich, dense, and stark in their simplicity, and the whirling snow and crazy superstitions surrounding the eponymous vampire all mix into a heady and propulsive brew that gets only madder when you learn what’s going on in (and beyond) the woods…
With a séance, a lovely map, and a set of spiralling impossibilities occurring close together in a snowbound isolated location you’ll no doubt be getting strong vibes of Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot — and, well, I sincerely doubt that’s accidental. Byrnside also throws in what to my eye look like tidy nods to The Plague Court Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson and Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe, so you can’t deny that he’s unafraid to invite comparison with the brightest and the best. And the awareness of classic mystery tropes extends beyond simply lip service to such titles: see Manory thinking how much the séance feels like the setup to a murder, or the admission that he’s most in his element when “everyone in the room was focussed on him, breathlessly awaiting his summation”.
We diverge from the classics in certain aspects of conduct — Manory commits an act of violence on a corpse that even Poe would shudder to consider, and is party to another on behalf of the police of the era that felt, to me, a little out of place in this style of book but is doubtless unfortunately laced with historical accuracy — and in the camaraderie between Manory and his by turns truculent and hilarious associate Walter Williams. I don’t know of any other detective pairing that has provoked in me such joy in recent years (“How about you just tell me the questions and I’ll make a note of them.”) and the contrast of their methods when they set out to collect information is wonderful — give me Walter’s approach as Manory’s emissary any day of the week. Dropped casually throughout this tale are hints of previous cases the two have handled, and the fact that these three books are not set in the order they’re published means we may yet get to see more of them…I’m hopeful in this regard, but only time will tell.
If aspects of the milieu don’t fit into the writing of the 1930s you’re hoping for, however, rest assured that the puzzles are pure Golden Age: the ‘dying message’ may not quite be a dying message but it’s pure genius all the same, as is the repeated motif of, er, removing something and the justifications for it,uh, happening in the second death. For classic mystery fans, these sorts of details — redolent with the ingenuity brought to the very best puzzles of the genre’s heyday — are why Byrnside is something to get very excited about. The answers when they come are infuriatingly satisfying, the meshing of plot and action making that horrid kind of sense that the very best puzzles do at the close, with your suspect right there in plain sight for you to see, and the motive a refreshingly bonkers one to be both shown and shilled away from.
How fair play is it? Extremely. Perfectly? Eh…no. But that’s not Byrnside’s fault, since the one detail you’re not explicitly told…well, come back on Tuesday for a discussion about that. But in terms of the eight questions you’re asked to answer, yes, you absolutely should be able to, though I doubt many people will get more than half of ’em. I was left to rue my own denseness in answering only a single one correctly — yes, one, laugh it up — but since this is a genre that we delight being shown up by I’m just going to view that as getting my money’s worth. Such dexterous handling of the complications of such an involved plot is wonderful to see, not least because you can trust that the answers are there if you’re smart enough to spot them. I’ll get you next time, Byrnside…
Do I have any criticisms? Of course: the whole thing barrels along at such a rate, with incident following event stumbling after happening, that sometimes the sheer inescapable terror of the situation doesn’t quite land. The event that closes out chapter 12, say, seemed to whizz past because there are still things to encounter elsewhere, and part of me — saving this for reading until after 9pm on two consecutive evenings, going for the full Hallowe’en experience — wanted to shudder a bit more. In that regard, Rim of the Pit and Murder on the Way! make perfect comparisons: sure, we remember the piling on of insanities, but also look at how much time is spent with a pretty big cast in the quiet lulls before the loopiness is let slip. This is, though, far from a fatal flaw, and I offer it not as a repine so much as a hope for the future of what will come from Byrnside’s corkscrew of a brain.
In short, if there’s another author working in the provision of impossible crimes today who writes with the invention, vigour, genre awareness, clarity, and game-playing intent of James Scott Byrnside let them declare themself (or, y’know, do it for them). When, three books in, you’re doing work that stands on a footing with the brilliance of John Dickson Carr, Christianna Brand, and the thin slice of honkaku that has made it into English, that’s a very exciting place to be. All he needs to do now is write another one of these a year every year for the next four decades and we’ll be happy.
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: Manory and Williams are right on the scene and begin their sleuthing. To help us play along as armchair detectives, Byrnside supplies all we will need: maps of the house, illustrations of the footprints, a second murder (in the chapter entitled “All Good Detective Stories Have a Second Murder”) and, courtesy of Ellery Queen, both a dying message and a formal Challenge to the Reader. For the latter, the author asks eight questions of the reader, and I am proud to say that I answered none of them correctly. To be honest, I didn’t even try. I just wanted to go along for the ride.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I think The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is actually more accomplished as a whodunit than as a locked room mystery with a murderer who was hiding in plain sight (always satisfying) who had an original motive to engineer a whole series of otherworldly crimes. Just like in previous novels, the plot resembles a Matryoshka doll with multiple, interconnected problems that not only includes a plethora of impossible crimes and elusive murderer, but a dying message that had to be violently pried from the victim’s clenched fist or why the murderer had no option to sever the hands of the second victim – a kind of corpse puzzle you normally only come across in Japanese shin honkaku detective stories.
James Scott Byrnside reviews on The Invisible Event