FLOOD, MUD, BLOOD: Goodnight Irene by James Scott Byrnside

“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.

img_0524                                       My first attempt at self publishing . . .

img_0526                                                       . . . 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!

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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.

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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!

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24 thoughts on “FLOOD, MUD, BLOOD: Goodnight Irene by James Scott Byrnside

  1. I love this post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. When I was in 3rd grade a friend and I decided to write a mystery a la Nancy Drew. We had a great plot (a set of mysterious keys found in the woods near a diary with missing pages and smudged entries) I think we got to 3 chapters and about 12 pages before we became interested in something else. The book was forgotten and I am SO sad that it was lost in our move across country.

    Your post reminded me of those very happy times. Btw would love to read your stories 🙂

    Happy New Year Brad!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, Bradley! I am, of course, delighted that you enjoyed this so much — the humour really is wonderful, and Manory and Williams have a superb relationship that’s captured very smarty by the little snipes and digs they take at each other throughout. I missed that “pixelated” description, too — good catch — but this review has brought back to mind so much of the fun I had while reading the book I’m alsmost (almost) tempted to read it again. It’s a wild time, and I’m very excited for his second (and third, and fourth, and fifth,,,) book when it comes out later this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All we bloggers are frustrated authors. maybe we should pool our first-and-second-chapter novels and see what we come out with — a sort of Floating Admiral but we all started with different plots… 😆

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Brad, for sharing your early writing experience with us. It reminds me of my first short story, written when I was eleven. And you’re absolutely right; it’s not just a matter of talent. It’s the discipline to keep honing that talent, and the forces of luck, serendipity, and that talent that lead to publication. I’m glad you liked this novel, and really respect your discussion of what it took to get the book out there. And thanks for the kind mentions!

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  4. Thanks, Brad, for a new author I can check out. I’m from the delta and people still talk about the flood of ’27.

    The “Mystery of the Sleeping” Stone yarn book cover is awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Been a tough day today, but reading about your juvenilia work, with pictures to boot raised a smile. Totally need to get it printed by the likes of coachwhip or the DSP! I do have a really cool premise for a book, but unfortunately I have no idea what happens next, so my appalling first steps into fiction somewhat ground to a halt (probably a good thing).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for the kind words. It’s good to have fans of the genre read and review it – positively or not. I lot of people who’ve read it, begin by saying, “If I read this sort of thing, I would like it.” Hopefully, the next book will be an improvement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was scary good fun, James! I am by no means the locked room expert JJ is, but you brought so much of what we come to expect from a classic mystery to this, and yet it still felt modern. And Christianna Brand is one of my very favorites, too, so you had perfect inspiration! Does the second book feature Rowan and Williams, or are you resisting a series at the moment?

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      1. They’ll have one more rodeo and then it’s on to something else. Writing about the same characters makes things a little easier, but it also causes writers to become lazy.

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      2. That’s an interesting comment. I’m thinking of some of my favorite sleuths and the 20 – 30 novels in which they appeared. Most of them started out fine, got much better, then slid tragically. I think in the case of Poirot, Fell, and Merrivale it was more due to authorial age!

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  7. Having the controversial and sometimes wayward opinion of JJ being backed up by another source about a self published novel is always a delight, given that it provides me with another book to read when my GAD tbr has dwindled.
    I remember several failed attempts at detective fiction in my younger days. I wrote at least 2 Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys esque “mystery” novels that I can barely recall. My next attempts came in the form of 4 short stories I wrote throughout 8th grade. They were all impossible crime based, and I’ve managed to save them all, though in retrospect the writing and plotting is very loose and cringe inducing. I started a few more stories, never finished them, and then wrote the prologue to a novel that I never really started. A very productive and influential career, I know 😃.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Great!
        We can focus it around the murder of a GAD enthusiast done solely for the purpose of robbing his/her collection of their copy of Death of Jezebel ( in paperback!), their complete John Rhode set, and a few unreleased Paul Halter translations ( supposedly written in English, with the twist being that they were actually only translated to Japanese!!!) 😉

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Well, I am a suitable victim ! I have Death of Jezebel, many John Rhode books and also a few unreleased Paul Halter translations actually in English !

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