Last year, James Scott Byrnside debuted with an ambitiously plotted, cleverly written historical (locked room) mystery novel, Goodnight Irene (2018), which he dedicated to one of the uncrowned queens of the Golden Age detective story, Christianna Brand – whose influence on Byrnside left a noticeable mark on the plot. Goodnight Irene was deservedly received with much acclaim and enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, in an interview with "JJ," of The Invisible Event, Byrnside revealed he had only been seriously reading classic detective fiction since January, 2017, when he came across an audio-book of A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922) on YouTube. This makes Goodnight Irene even more remarkable, because the characterization, plotting and writing showed a firm grasp and understanding of the traditional detective story.
I always assumed it took years to discover, develop and fine-tune your taste, which gives you an understanding of the genre as a whole, but Byrnside moved with prodigal speed from listening to Milne's The Red House Mystery to writing a Western equivalent of a Japanese shin honkaku mystery novel – potentially lightening the spark of a second Golden Age. I, on the other hand, can still be genuinely amazed at the sheer volume of detective fiction produced between 1920 and 1960. And the resulting endless procession of obscure, long-forgotten mystery writers who keep clawing to the surface.
So most of us where eagerly looking forward to Byrnside's second impossible crime novel, entitled The Opening Night Murders (2019), which promised to be a detective story along the lines of Brand's superb Death of Jezebel (1948). Well, I was not disappointed.
The Opening Night Murders is set in Chicago, 1935, and begins on a somewhat similar note as Goodnight Irene and Death of Jezebel.
Rowan Manory and Walter Williams are two Chicago-based private-detectives who are essentially Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but interact with each other more like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin without them really resembling any of these characters – which makes them descendants, instead of cheap knockoffs, of those famous detectives. Their next intricately-plotted, elusive and puzzling headache of a case is brought to them by "the finest actress in all of Chicago," Lisa Pluviam.
Lisa and Jenny Pluviam are sisters who been in theater, in one form or another, their entire lives. They started in high school, "farted around flops and dives in Chicago for seven years" and studied in New York, which turned Lisa into a proper stage actress and Jenny became a director/playwright. So an unexpected inheritance from their estranged father placed in the position to open The Red Rising Theater and put on their own productions. The Balcony is one of those productions, written and directed by Jenny Pluviam, with Lisa Pluviam as the lead star of this promising play, but Lisa is "a little spooked" when she receives an anonymous death threat. A note had been left in her office, in the theater, promising she'll die on opening night and there's only a window of twenty-four hours in which the note could have been left – only seven people had access to the theater during that time frame. Two of them are Lisa and Jenny Pluviam. The others include four actors, Timothy Brown, Edward Filius, Allison Miller and Maura Lewis, rounded out by the grizzled stage technician, Sam "Grizz" Thompson.
I think the opening chapter excellently showcases Manory's experience and skill as an old, weather-beaten detective as he mines the story presented to them for facts and details, which allows him to make some accurate deductions about the characters and the play – which is always an open invitation to draw comparisons with Sherlock Holmes. However, here it wasn't done in order to dazzle the client or reader with amazing feats of deductions based on a particular type of clay or scratches on a pocket watch. Manory was earnestly probing the problem and this made him come across, in spite of his verbosity, as an honestly intelligent detective.
Lisa convinces Manory to come to the opening of The Balcony to keep an eye on her and act "sort of like a bodyguard," which might convince her would-be-assassin to abandon his, or her, plan. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case.
On the right side of the stage, there's "a twenty-foot-high tower with the two balconies side by side," on which Lisa and Edward's characters meet, but, during her balcony scene, Lisa toppled over the rail and plunged twenty-feet. She landed face first with "a sharp, sickening crack of her neck." Lisa had been all alone on the balcony and there were two-hundred people in the audience to back up that claim, but Manory is convinced one of his six suspect had planned and carried out, what looked like, the perfect murder. And now the story, or rather the plot, becomes a little tricky to discuss.
Years ago, I compared the plot of M.P.O. Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), one of the best Dutch detective novels ever written, to a kaleidoscopic photograph. A plot that initially appears to be a confusion of scattered, seemingly unconnected plot-threads, but, as the story progresses, the lens is slowly turned back into focus – creating a complete and coherent picture of the case. Byrnside has a similar plotting-style except with him there's never any doubt the plot-threads are connected, but the effect is pretty much the same. JJ hit the nail on the head when he called the plot of The Opening Night Murders a "mesmerizing, intoxicating performance."
The hook of The Opening Night Murders isn't simply the excellently positioned and executed impossible crime in front of two-hundred witnesses, but the way in which every single aspect and detail of the story logically dovetailed together in the end. This allowed Byrnside to play around with that beloved plot-device of puzzle-plot enthusiasts, the multiple interpretations/solutions, which is used quite effectively towards the end of the story. Simply amazing!
Once more, I can't give you too many exact details about this intricate, maze-like plot, littered with clues, but the second murder deserves a mention. A murder that's the exact opposite of the carefully planned, coolly executed murder of Lisa Pluviam. The second, gory murder was a frenzied killing carried out with a straight razor and kitchen knife. However, the murderer turned out to have a logical reason to go to town on this victim that you normally only see in Japanese shin honkaku mysteries, in which a dismembered or mutilated body often turns out to be a key-piece of the puzzle. Byrnside truly is a neo-orthodox mystery writer!
The Opening Night Murders is not simply a detective of cold, hard logic, but one that becomes very close and personal for the two detectives, which results in an unforgettable ending. Granted, I have read similar kind of endings in detective stories, but not quite like this one!
So, where the characters, plot and story-telling is concerned, I have practically nothing to nitpick about, except that the colorful vernacular of the characters seem very modern at times, but I have a piece of advice for Byrnside. Don't become a one-man tribute band by leaning too heavily on Brand as a foundation for your stories, because it's going to take away from your own ideas in the long run. Instead, you should follow the example of Paul Halter, a disciple of John Dickson Carr, who emerged from his idol's shadow to carve out a legacy of his own as a modern master of the locked room mystery. You can do it!
The Opening Night Murders has rich story-telling that logically navigates a beautifully designed, labyrinthine-like plot to its inevitable conclusion and hopefully a sign from the Gods (Poe, Doyle and Chesterton) that a second Golden Age is on the horizon. I'm eagerly looking forward to the third entry in the series, The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020), which is a prequel and will be released next summer. I'm kind of curious to see how exactly R. Francis Foster's Something Wrong at Chillery (1931) has influenced the interaction between Manory and Williams (see comment-section).
On a final, semi-related note: I crammed this review in between my planned ones (still more than a month ahead of schedule) and this came at the expense of yesterday's review of The Doll Island Murder Case from the Kindaichi series. So, if you missed that blog-post, it's there.