“I have seen the swallowing of jewels, a puffer fish poisoning, and a woman strangled with her own cat, but I have never seen anything like this.” (Rowan Manory)
It’s no secret that I always wanted to write a mystery. I have penned a few childish things. No, literally, they were the works of a child: in the 4thgrade, I wrote a gripping 37-page long mystery novel called The Mystery of the Bleeding Stone. I even designed the cover – out of yarn! – and illustrated the damn thing. I dimly remember it was about a brother and sister who bore a strong resemblance, in personality if not strictly in gender, to my heroes, Frank and Joe Hardy.
My first attempt at self publishing . . .
. . . I even did the artwork!
In the 7thgrade, I wrote a serial for the school newspaper called The Curse of Metzaba. To be honest, I can’t remember a thing about this except that while I want to tell you that my inspiration was Agatha Christie, of whom by that time I was well read, but that the denouement more closely resembled Scooby Doo. Any pre-teen boy can be forgiven for his choices.
For years, whenever possible, I have taken writing classes through local university extension courses. I have written comic stories, attempted short pieces of lit-oo-rah-chure – and have managed to write the first chapter of about fifteen mysteries that will never see the light of day. The most recent class I took was not helpful. The teacher was not very good. She herself was working on an epic novel that she fully expected to have published one of these years – IF, that is, she could weather the “new” publishing market.
For you see, boys and girls, it has become harder than ever to get your book published. That’s why I am in awe of the people I have met, here in the blogosphere – folks like Margot Kinberg, Christine Poulson, Martin Edwards, Curtis Evans – amazing artists who have tackled and met this challenge multiple times.
It’s not the writing, mind you. Margot will tell you that in order to write a book, you just have to write. Every day. And then you revise. And then you revise again. Having talent helps, but being an artist is a job as much as a calling. No, it’s the getting published part that amazes me! To have your writing admired is a wonderful thing, but I have my mother for that! To have a professional say, “This is sellable and we’re going to prove it” is a whole other can of beans.
This mediocre writing teacher did offer one ray of hope: she told us that self-publication in this crazy world of shuttered bookstores, online shopping and self-promotion on social media is an increasingly viable option if you want to see your work in print. Enter Amazon, the monolith that is probably taking over the world as we speak, yet it is impossible for me to speak ill of a company that brings to my door books – and lotions, broiling pans, theatre props, et al – that can’t be found in the stores, all for a more reasonable price than one would find if one could find these things in the stores.
One of Amazon’s many services is to assist writers in self-publication. All you have to do is search around to see that hundreds of people have taken advantage of this service. There are folks on Amazon with as many books to their credit as Stephen King! And, of course, some of them write mysteries. Up till this moment, I have avoided every one of these. But my good buddy JJ, he of The Invisible Event, has made a study of self-published mysteries of the impossible kind. For the most part, he has saved all of us from one Genre Catastrophe after another, but sometimes he strikes gold.
Recently, JJ posted with great excitement a review of Goodnight Irene, the debut mystery of James Scott Byrnside. Normally, I read these things and move on. But I don’t know: this one sounded fun – and it was only $2.99 on Kindle. So I bought it and read it, and you know what? It was one kuh-raaaazzzy fun ride!
It’s 1927, and Chicago P.I. Rowan Manory is reeling from a case that ended in a nightmare. He receives a letter from a businessman named Robert Lasciva, who asks him to come to Vicksburg, Mississippi to prevent a murder – his own!
“Recently, I received a death threat in the mail. This threat promises that I will be murdered during the weekend of my fifty-fifth birthday and that the murderer will be a guest at my party.”
Seeking a jumpstart to his flagging career, Manory goes to Vicksburg, taking his assistant, Walter Williams along. Mississippi is in the middle of a horrendous flood that never lets up. The whole set-up reminded me of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery– just substitute water for fire. And this flood was a real-time event, which Byrnside makes an integral and exciting part of the story.
The house party is small: a few family members, some really creepy business associates, a secretary and a butler. There is nothing sedate about this crowd, however, and it only takes a few pages in their company to get a strong sense of danger, a feeling that anythingcould happen. And in the manner of a really good GAD house party, it doesn’t take long before all hell breaks loose!
Byrnside is obviously well-versed in multiple forms of the genre. We get a twisty locked room mystery with all the peculiar elements you find in, say, a Paul Halter tale. There is also a heavy tang of American pulp fiction overlying the whole proceedings. The case Manory investigates has ties to a horrific past crime, one to which Manory himself is tangentially connected. And be warned: I haven’t read such a violent book in I don’t know when. But the gore is (nearly) leavened by enough humor to lend the whole book a screwball effect.
If this sounds like it comes from an author who is confused about his tone, cast that worry aside. Byrnside has a real flair for plotting, pace, and dialogue. There are some superb action sequences here, as well as some great moments of comedy. Most of the latter comes from Walter Williams, one of my new favorite Watsons. He has some of the smart-alecky qualities of an Archie Goodwin mixed with the tender concern for his boss one finds in Captain Hastings.
Mostly, he’s a wise-ass. Here he engages in conversation with Lasciva’s nephew’s British wife:
- “What does your country do on the fourth of July?”
- “Whatever do you mean? We do nothing.”
- “Is there a day of mourning? You see, we Americans have never really lost. We can’t even imagine what it’s like.”
- “What about the Alamo.”
- “I’m afraid I don’t remember the Alamo.”
Byrnside propels the plot along swiftly but is never unwilling to stop for a joke. A few of them fall flat, but most of the humor worked for me, especially the repartee between Williams and Manory. And the fact that their snappy banter is based on a deep mutual respect and affection – one to which Manory would never admit – leavens the jokiness with a warm sense of friendship, something we appreciate more and more as Byrnside ramps up the horror and the suspense.
The shifts in tone, the violence, the humor, give the novel a modern flair, but the setting and the plot are pure GAD, right down to a most unusual final gathering in the library where Manory regales the survivors with a solution to all the nightmare that has befallen them. It is a neat finale that calls to mind some of our favorite locked room solutions.
Not everything works. The second half of the novel, while exciting, seems rushed. Sometimes Byrnside experiments with his prose and comes up with something rather clever ,like a chapter called “First Impressions” which introduces the suspects to Rowan through his own internal monologue. But that inside voice pops up again and again throughout the novel and doesn’t always make sense. There’s some heavy-handed metaphoring, some of it a bit jarring, and occasionally a word pops up that doesn’t make sense given the time period, such as seeing something in the rain that looks “pixilated.”
But these points – the ones that suggest everybody could use a once-over from a good editor – are niggling ones, given the enjoyment I had with this novel. Given all the empty promises we get from Harper Collins and the rest that the novels we pick up in the bookstore are the “second coming of Agatha Christie,” it’s gratifying to read a modern author who truly gets the genre and applies it with some expertise. So I’m grateful to JJ for calling my attention to this promising author, one who already has a second novel in the works, coming this summer. I’ll be there with my Kindle outstretched, Mr. Byrnside. Hopefully, we’ll get a scene where a woman gets strangled with her cat.
And let me say: Good for you, sir! You’re living the dream . . . because you made it happen!