#716: Nosferat-whodunnit? – The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) by James Scott Byrnside

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.

“Roar!”

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.

“I hate you so much, Jim.”

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.

~

See also

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

Goodnight Irene (2018)
The Opening Night Murders (2019)
The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020)

28 thoughts on “#716: Nosferat-whodunnit? – The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) by James Scott Byrnside

  1. “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.” 🤩 But let’s not put too much pressure…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We totally agree. Byrnside is a master in creating a grim atmosphere, convoluted murders that have a simple yet ingenious solution. Like you I was able to answer only a question of the “Challenge to the reader”, the one regarding the first murder method. For the no-footprints-problem I have imagined something as “The White Priory Murders”, but I was wrong. Also the references you made are quite the same I have noticed. Very good review, I hope James will follow your advise in giving us reader a book every year!

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    • I was able to answer the one about the vampire…but I failed to interpret the nature of that answer correctly (there was a linguistic clue I thought I picked up on which it turns out was just a thing someone said and not a clue at all…I’m very good at spotting those).

      Loads of fun, hey?

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    • I first read Rim of the Pit between a Christmas and a New Year, when it was cold and dark and howling with wind outside, and I was perched in a circle of light in the midst of gathering gloom…a wonderful experience for such a book, and this one would certainly be superbly suited to it, too. Can’t wait to see what others make of this.

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  3. Pingback: FANGS FOR THE MANORYS: The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire | ahsweetmysteryblog

  4. I swear to God: I waited until after I posted my own review to read yours. And yet . . . and YET . . . we use so many of the same adjectives!!! I answered a whopping ZERO out of eight questions correctly and couldn’t care less. What I do care about is that Walter was there. I love Walter, I want Walter, and, by God, I will have him!!!

    And then there’s the little matter of Chapter Ten . . . . . . . .

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    • Well, it’s an experience that invites a lot of “What the hell is going on here?” and I suppose there are only so many adjectives one can use to describe that feeling…

      I’m hopeful this isn’t the last we see of Walter and Manory — Byrnside has, I think, expressed a desire to move on and try something new, but with any luck he can leave these guys turning over clues in the back of his mind and pick ’em up again when the right idea comes along.

      Suffice to say, I am extremely excited about whatever he does next…

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  5. My main issue with Byrnside’s work is that he ends up being somewhat more “dark” and “edgy” that I’d like. Still, solid mystery plots all-in-all so I’m definitely picking up this one.

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    • I’m never entirely sure what is meant when someone’s writing is said to be “edgy” — it brings to mind people in backwards baseball caps, which is probably just the 90s kid in me 🙂 There’s a darkness there, most certainly, but I’ve always seen that in these stories where people murder for profit and selfishness. The Golden Age is full of it, and it’s only the relative insulation of time that allows us to fee differently, I think — like we’re all so bust distracted by they twee money and cars that go a maximum of 40 mph, so the murder also gets painted with a slightly rose-tinted brush, too.

      Nevertheless, three books in I’d say Byrnside has as strong a claim on understanding the trappings of the GAD mystery as almost anyone writing in this field, and is light years ahead of most of them. Elements of, say, the violence in his books don’t fit into the tradition, I’d agree, but we also know that these were violent times…the fault is, if anything, at the feet of the authors who wrote contemporaneously to it and ignored it so as to give a nicer impression of the world that murder inhabited.

      I suppose, though, that the sanitising of the violence around the murder in most of the works done in GAD allows the murder itself to stand out as a more shocking event…which is, I feel, an essay or three that’s been boiling in the back of my mind for a while now. Hmmm, I shall reflect on this and return to it at some point.

      Er, sorry, veered off a bit there. If you decide to buy this one, and I’d recommend it for all the reasons above, I hope it meets your expectations a little more fully than Byrnside’s previous work. It’s a definite attempt to improve, and for that we can be very grateful.

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      • We should have a forum about this where we can argue about it because I do see Yannis’ point. JSB can write whatever he likes, but I think the graphic violence and sexual content makes this much more of a hybrid between classic detective fiction and American pulp/P.I. stuff. And since the primary mechanics are pure GAD, some of the other stuff can be jarring. Not when it fits into the story, like the cutting off of Mades’ hands, but the brutality of Bugs Benny or the content of that godawful sci-fi/horror novel the writer wrote.

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  6. I mentioned this to the author, too, but the weakest part for me, personally, was the means through which the solution is delivered. In my eyes, the overall scene kind of didn’t really work with the tone and setting the book had going up to that point.

    The overall solutions were fun, though — there were some parts I was disappointed with, but only in the “ah, it was that kind of trick” way, not in terms of the mechanics of everything. (Personal preference, basically.) It all works. And I feel like the general setups more than make up for whatever shortcomings the solutions might’ve had.

    Overall, I feel like Vampire works best when placed against the entire trilogy. Not in terms of just overall improvement, but the way in which Rowan’s character changes. It’s not often you get a detective series where you can witness the protagonist’s past, present and future in a relatively short volume of entries.

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    • Gosh, I have to say that I LOVED that last scene. I kept wondering if we would get closure to the invitation at the beginning, and this was a perfect way to do that AND to offer a variation on the gathering of the suspects scene you find in so many classic mysteries. It was another great meta-moment for me in this one.

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      • Well, even the introduction of that invitation kind of felt off to me; it just seemed a bit… silly(?) when placed against… everything else that not only this story does, but the rest of the trilogy in general. We have dark, brutal murders, set in grimy and corrupted Chicago streets, with witches and vampires lurking out in the countryside… and also clubs where detectives show off how cool they are!

        There’s nothing wrong with it in principle, I just don’t feel like this is the type of story where it was the most tonally appropriate conclusion. It didn’t ruin the story for me or anything. And, I admit that (Rot13) gur xvyyre naq gurve zbgvingvbaf cebonoyl jrera’g gung vagrerfgvat sebz n punenpgre fgnaqcbvag, abe jrer gur fgnxrf nf uvtu gb unir gur fnzr xvaq bs yrnq-hc/pbasebangvbaf gur bgure abiryf unq, so I can’t guarantee a more tone-appropriate conclusion would’ve necessarily felt more satisfying. So.

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    • Yeah, the tone in that final chapter is a little off in comparison to the rest, but it didn’t bother me — we’re clearly there to have a little fun, and it’s at least confined to the end rather than dropped in the middle like H.M. being chased by dogs in the otherwise dark and shattering She Died a Lady.

      And, in fairness to me, I did also put the book down for 20 minutes and attempt to think through the answers. Perhaps flipping straight on makes the contrast more striking, but personally I’m yet to met a Challenge to the Reader that I don’t obey…!

      As for workings…I know what you mean here, since that’s frequently a feature of the impossible crime story: the setup is so damn amazing, knowing the prosaic answer can feel a little deflating. I spent a while in my impossible crime reading feeling very anxious about this, whether the answer is as brilliant as the question posed, but then I came to an accommodation that Byrnside himself actually addressed pretty neatly in a recent spoiler-filled post about John Dickson Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part. Brilliant, side-swiping solutions doubtless exist and will remain to be found, but on the whole it’s how it’s used that matters more to me now.

      So long as no-one is wounded by their killer and then locks the door to protect themself…

      And don’t be too satisfied with the development of Manory, otherwise we might not get to see any more of him 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Rollout of The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire – James Scott Byrnside

  8. I’m a little torn on this one – the sheer energy of everything just happening non-stop after the first murder was delightful, Manory and Williams’ relationship is still fun (still no idea what women see in the latter, unless he just hangs around Manory to look hotter by comparison), and the denouement was such a tonal shift I couldn’t help but love it – but jesus christ the stuff with the Romani characters was just grim, and the explanation for the twisted backs is… dubiously solvable.

    One of the suspects essentially being Garth Marenghi was hilarious, though.

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    • And, yes, the twisted backs/invisible fighting is the point where I think the fair play becomes tricky — if one has read enough in the genre, maybe, but the real challenge is how to introduce this to an ‘amateur’ audience without blowing the gaff. A problem to which there is no easy solution…

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