It has been forty-five years since we could all savor the prospect of a “Christie for Christmas.” Alas, that time is passed, so I propose a new tradition: a “Byrnside for Boo-time!” The classic-style impossible crime mysteries penned by modern-day scribe James Scott Byrnside are, by turns, mystifying, sometimes fear-inducing, and most of the time very, very funny. He has managed one a year for the past three years, so why not get a rhythm going, Mr. B., and start a new tradition. You can even tell them I inspired you . . . just like I did with Chapter Ten! (We’ll get to that in a bit . . . )
As a rule, nobody likes to include spoilers in a review of a new book for fear of spoiling the mystery. Here, I find myself doubly flummoxed by the fact that I also don’t want to spoil any of the jokes. I will admit that once in a while Byrnside irritates me, once (in Book Two) he infuriated me, and occasionally he merely grosses me out. But most of all, I admire a man who, while plotting his mysteries, dives into the tropes of the Golden Age and wades deep.
The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is the third chronicled case for Chicago-based Rowan Manory, that stocky, prickly, flawed but brilliant (or is that brilliant-but-flawed) private eye who with his associate, the unlikely babe magnet Walter Williams (my favorite Watson since Archie Goodwin) gravitates toward baffling puzzles involving truly terrible people. However, the events described in Vampire occur at the earliest point in Manory’s career yet. Why, after only two other books (Goodnight Irene was set in 1927, and The Opening Night Murders in 1935) does Byrnside jump backwards to 1920 and the height of Prohibition? Trust me, after that major infuriation in the second book to which I alluded above, just be glad he did this – and continues to do so for a while!
The two things I love most about these novels are, first, the wonderful relationship between Manory and Williams, which provides a consistent dose of wry humor, often coinciding with some of the darkest, hardest-to-take moments in a case. Manory lacks the self-assurance of a Nero Wolfe or Gideon Fell, although he tries his best to bluff through. And Walter is no loyal dummy like Hastings or inconsequential witness like anyone who follows along with Fell in a Carr mystery. He helps with the investigations and he keeps Manory’s feet on the ground in all sorts of delightful ways. (The final pages of this volume are an especially good example.)
The other thing I love is the rich meta-aspect of Byrnside’s work, both in his incorporation of classic mystery tropes and in his homage to what I assume to be are some of his favorite authors and books. Goodnight Irene, a locked room mystery set during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 combined the locked room machinations of Carr with the violence of the pulps and added a dash of Ellery Queen on the side, as the whole set-up reminded me of the raging forest fire in The Siamese Twin Mystery). The Opening Night Murders, on the other hand, was an homage to Christianna Brand, specifically her impossible crime classic, Death of Jezebel.
This time around, I have a sneaking suspicion that somebody had read and deeply admired Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit before setting fingers to keyboard. In both books, we have a secluded house filled with a tense group of people, a mysterious séance, a detective hanging around to prove the psychic a fake, a local monster, and a violent and impossible murder.
And then things get really bonkers.
In these early days of Manory’s career, things couldn’t be going better. Not only is his reputation as a solver of crimes sterling, but the publicity his crime-solving has engendered has gotten him an invitation to speak to the world’s most distinguished assemblage of sleuths, the Detectives Club. Manory can’t wait to give a talk about one of his greatest successes to the crowd because it means settling the score with a former mentor turned bitter rival
But first Rowan must do something about another invitation, this one from a potential new client. Thomas Browning, the richest man in Chicago, has decided to transform the small town he lives in just north of the Windy City into a destination spot. First, however, he must deal with the matter of a psychic who has invaded his household, courtesy of Browning’s business partner. All Manory has to do is debunk an upcoming séance, and he can name his price., Manory accepts what he assumes will be easy money, but things are far less simple than they appear.
For a long time, Vampire looks like it will be the most traditional of Byrnside’s efforts. The occupants of Browning’s mansion seem traditional: the much younger wife, the estranged daughter, the creepy butler, the nervous business partner, the drunken doctor, and the handsome young author commissioned to write Browning’s memoir. Enter Madame Cuchla, the psychic in question, and we find ourselves firmly in early Carr/Hake Talbot territory.
There’s also a cat.
And, possibly, a vampire.
Murder occurs on a snowy morning, with plenty of suspicious footprints for our sleuths to ponder. (Those slurping sounds you hear come from JJ over at The Invisible Event, drooling over the footprints in the snow. Come on, James, admit it: you wrote this one for JJ. All except Chapter Ten. Chapter Ten is MINE!!!)
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. To my mind, Manory manages to find satisfactory answers to all eight questions, and some of the stuff he has to explain is absolutely crazy in the no-holds-barred way Byrnside can get.
Perhaps things jump around a bit in the latter half, and certain events, like the second encounter with Madame Cuchla, are disappointingly rushed, given how absolutely NUTS things get. A third murder is almost literally tossed off as an aside. I’m also not sure how I feel about the author’s technique here of taking us into Manory’s head as he detects. And while I love most of the humor in the book, there is one character whose name is clearly a joke, and for me the joke fell flat.
These minor caveats are totally forgiven for two reasons: first, everything else is fun as can be – a crazy combination of elegant ratiocination, screwball comedy and gross-out pulp that works in tandem beautifully. And when he’s cooking, Byrnside’s writing is succinctly elegant, as in this description of a minor character:
“Across from him sat Leo Van Horne, a fiftyish wisp of a man with coke-bottle glasses and a snug, blue-checkered seersucker. He sported a faint, straw moustache that appeared more like an afterthought than a plan.”
The second reason I forgive Byrnside his excesses (I never want to come across a Vespoth again. Never!) is that Chapter Ten belongs to me! Whether he intended it or not, these pages are an Homage to Friedman, and I thank you for it, Mr. B.!
Chapter Ten is called “Dragging the Marsh.”