I haven’t pursued any Adventures in Self-Publishing, in which I read and review self-published works featuring impossible crimes, since October 2020. Well, the good news is that James Scott Byrnside, star pupil of the AiSP Academy, released his fourth book in December 2021, and so now we can saddle up the horse again and get adventurin’.
Stepping away from his previous characters Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, The 5 False Suicides (2021) revolves instead around book club The Murder-Mystery Appreciation Society of New Sweden, or MASONS. It’s 1947, serial killer the Butcher of Burlington has been carving people up in the state of Maine, forest fires are rife…what self-respecting book club wouldn’t fancy a weekend away on a residential island in Blood Bay? What could go wrong!?
Where the Manory and Williams books were clear attempts to write a Golden Age-style who- and howdunnit, Byrnside dedicates The 5 False Suicides to Fredric Brown, author of The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) and The Night of the Jabberwock (1950), which will give some of you some idea of the different intent here. The little Brown I’ve read is big on coincidence and character bonds over investigation and deduction, and so the wild nature of what unfurls here is there for you to anticipate if you’ve read moderately widely in the genre. And the word is “wild” — holy hell, this is a crazy time. So buckle up…
We meet the MASONS collectively making the most sensible decision anyone has ever made in a crime novel — passing up reading more Ngaio Marsh (miaow!) — before then having a meta discussion about the false nature of the impossible crime in fiction that rings true (“As fun as they are, they usually require an unbearable suspension of disbelief…”) even as you know it’s only paving the way for the madness that a book with this sort of title will devolve into. By the time president Gretta Grahame has learned about her unsuspectedly violent family history from a distant relative, then learned of a curse that necessitates visiting a witch after a death that proves suspicious (“It ain’t like those books by Dick Johnson Carter.”) we’re…five chapters in, and all such concerns about rationality and disbelief might as well have never bothered trying to impose themselves on the milieu.
The cast here is compact without being tiny, and Byrnside is to be commended for how tightly he manages to pack them together so that the book club are all involved in events that should ordinarily be beyond their ken or concern. Look, the bunch of nerds I discuss classic mysteries with on a sort of monthly basis are lovely people all, but if my family turned out to be murderously insane or cursed or something I can’t say they’d be the first people I’d rush to for support. We can be pretty sure that our culprit-to-be might lie among their number, however, and a tidy job is done tying together the people already introduced so that it suddenly seems weirdly plausible that these are the people who go together, on our Hungarian witch Boroqe Rieszak’s advice, to the wilds of Maine in fire season.
The one flaw I will level at the book at this stage is doubtless just my own expectations, but after much being made of the island setting via the superb mapback paperback edition, the island ends up feeling sort of moot. When we first drive onto it, it’s covered with the sort of brevity that fails to make much of the island itself, and it seems a shame to isolate a group on an island when we know a bunch of murders are about to be unleashed and not play it up. Byrnside is, you feel, in such a rush to get to the glittering prize of the violence and mayhem that he doesn’t really mind what happens in the setup so long as we get there ASAP. And I love me a fast-paced book — or, well, I lose patience with slow ones, at least — but if the first six chapters had done a little more to sell me the people and the place I was about to watch be visited by insanity, I’d’ve been even more up for the bloodbath that follows.
And, boy, is it a bloodbath.
The clever decision to speed up his narrative by simply telling us via chapter titles (‘The First False Suicide’, ‘The Second and Third False Suicides’, etc.) that these deaths we know are gonna turn out to be murders are indeed murders — without having characters stand around ignorant of the fact, to the reader’s frustration, and then discover it slowly, to the reader’s increasing frustration — is a smart one, and allows for events to unfold at a rate that the plot leverages very well indeed. With everyone assigned cabins, and shots ringing out in the night and figures disappearing into woodland in a suspicious manner, the whole shebang comes to a delirious head for, er, two chapters before an intelligent dissection of events tries to make sense of what has passed (and, crucially, why so much of what has happened makes no sense). And then we’re off again.
This, I think, is where the influence of Brown is felt most keenly. Events pile up upon each other coincidentally in a way that any saner approach would render as the very falsehood discussed in the opening stages. There is a delirious quality to the nightmare of these deaths, and the nightmare logic that triumphs — most suicides taking place in the same conditions, with the same explanation clearly not applying each time — affected me in a way little I’ve read of late has. The sheer panic of these people ricocheting around this island is something to behold and, while the events on the island are best left for the reader to discover, I won’t ever think of this book without the headlong flight into a woodland that conceals who knows what leaping to my mind.
I could see no design behind all this Brownian motion, and the answers when they come would have been wonderful if teased out through investigative methods…but that’s just a personal preference, and I’m not going to hold against this that Byrnside has not intended to write that sort of book. One of the method revealed — the one likely to displease the most people, I imagine — is pure 1950s pulp magazine schlock, and I laughed like a drain when it was unveiled. To have brought such a diversity to these deaths, and to weave it into something approaching a pattern that adheres to its own nightmare logic, is two sides of a game played very well indeed, and we can be glad that Byrnside has opted to set up camp in our little corner of the genreverse. That two characters in here seem to exist only to come to graphically violent ends that in no way play into the overall scheme of this makes me suspect that Byrnside would be just as happy hammering out horror fiction of an especially disturbing nature. If we lose him like we did John Sladek and Mack Reynolds, I’ll be pissed off…!
The unashamedly lurid nature of this is to be applauded for how thoroughly it pervades every element of the plot, even if some people — myself among them — really would prefer Byrnside to stick to obscure clues and brilliant reasoning. I think a stretch of the legs is surely good for an author, and my immediate feeling on finishing this (after blinking a few times and reminding myself where I was) came down to that as a piece of minutely-crafted suspense fiction under the guise of a rough-around-the-edges piece of gaudy, cheap, pulp loopiness you could perhaps ask for little better. Would I like more detection? Sure. Would I like more subtlety? Sure. Would I like someone to explain the phrase “You roll your eyes at me one more time, I’m going to find you a hill.”? You betcha. But I also want Byrnside to be writing these ten years from now, so I want him to write the exact books he wants to write, and I think there can be little doubt that he’s achieved that here.
Well, the Adventures in Self-Publishing are up and running again; expect more before too long.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Sure, The 5 False Suicides is perhaps too short a novel with characterization taking a backseat to the plot and storytelling. I can see how readers who like characterization would have appreciated a little more elaboration about certain character revelations. But speaking as an uncouth, plot obsessed detective fanboy with a taste for the pulps, the lack of characterization didn’t bother me too much. To quote the great Dr. Gideon Fell, “I like some vividness of colour and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened.” I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life and neither does the author of this crazy-ass piece of pulp.
James Scott Byrnside reviews on The Invisible Event
Featuring Rowan Manory and Walter Williams:
- Goodnight Irene (2018)
- The Opening Night Murders (2019)
- The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020)
- The 5 False Suicides (2021)