The locked room mystery and impossible crime story comes in many different shapes and forms, opening the door to endless possibilities and variations to kill, or disappear, people under circumstances that can only be described as miraculous – whether the victims were in a sealed room, closely guarded or in an open space. And then there are the miscellaneous impossibilities such as levitation, phantom fingerprints, predictive dreams and the physical alibi. So the possibilities really are endless and mystery writers have been tinkering with it ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841.
There is, however, one type of impossible crime that appears to be incredibly restrictive without much room for innovation or originality. I'm talking about the no-footprints scenario.
John Dickson Carr's name is synonymous with the locked room and impossible crime story, but even the master himself only produced two really good and original no-footprints novels, The Hollow Man (1935) and She Died a Lady (1943) – latter published as by "Carter Dickson." If you look at what other mystery writers have written, there are no more than a dozen novels and short stories that stand out as inspired and original. Some examples that come to mind are Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950), Douglas Ashe's The Longstreet Legacy (1951), David Renwick's Jonathan Creek episode The Black Canary (1998) and two masterly done short stories, Robert Arthur's "The Glass Bridge" (1957) and Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings" (1960). Japan also produced some fine examples (e.g. Gosho Aoyama's "The Magic Lovers Case") and recently Paul Halter came up with a creative variation on the no-footprints scenario in La montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019). This short list of notable titles is why I've come to regard the no-footprints scenario as the most challenging and tricky impossible crime to tackle. A puzzle for experts.
So I was excited when the prodigy child of the Renaissance Era, James Scott Byrnside, announced his third novel featuring a killer who can apparently walk through walls and doesn't leave any footprints in the snow!
The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) is a prequel to Goodnight Irene (2018) and The Opening Night Murders (2019), set in November, 1920, which takes Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, Chicago's finest, to Barrington Hills – located "deep within the recesses of untamed Illinois." Thomas Browning, a rich railway magnate, wants a reputable private detective to debunk a psychic, Madame Cuchla, who has convinced his business partner, Hadd Mades, that turning Barrington Hills in a resort town is a bad idea. Madame Cuchla claims the region is haunted by one of the town's most notorious past residents, Otto Savore. Someone believed by the locals to be a vampire who, in 1875, allegedly killed more than fifty people in a single night with "none of the doors or windows of his victims were trespassed" and "no footprints in the snow." So, quite naturally, the townspeople buried him alive and "no grass ever grows on the vampire's grave." Madame Cuchla warns that death will come if the ground is ever build on.
Manory tells Browning that "any number of Chicago-River gumshoes could explain" the parlor tricks employed by psychics for a third of his price, but Browning wants a reputable detective to convince Mades. Manory certainly delivers the goods as he not only explains Madame Cuchla psychic reading of Williams, ghostly knocking and a floating face that vanished in a puff of smoke, but also gives a solution to the vampiric bloodbath from forty-five years ago. So the opening alone is good enough to be added to the list of debunked séance mysteries, but the problems that follow are of a less conventional nature. And they're all "damned impossible."
|A New Mapback!|
Thomas Browning's body is found in the garage with a twisted spine, broken bones, a slash across his right wrist and two bleeding puncture marks in his neck, but how had the murderer entered, or exited, the garage – only footprints going from the kitchen door to the garage belong to Browning. Another set of footprints goes from the kitchen door into the direction of the forest. A third and fourth set of footprints go from the garage window and back into the forest. Finally, two footprints are found next to the skylight on the garage roof, but none of them explained how Browning could have been attacked and killed. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is brimming with impossible material. There's a past murder case in which severed hands were left in the bedroom of a locked house and a second murder is committed inside a locked bedroom while Manory was sitting guard in the corridor. However, the story should not be judged solely as an impossible crime novel.
The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire has a small pool of suspects comprising of Browning's much younger wife, Madelaine, who sleepwalks and the reason why they have a live-in specialist, Dr. Sinclair. A daughter from a first marriage, Gertrude, who used to be married with a socialist associated with a band of hardliners, but he was "suicided" in a jail cell. She had not been on speaking terms with her father until he summoned her back home with the promise of a surprise. Howard Amorartis is a writer of supernatural horror and hopes his name will one day be as well-known as Poe, but now he has been commissioned to pen Browning's biography. Belby is the butler-chauffeur who's "not intelligent enough to devise a murder plan," but perhaps "subservient enough to carry one out." And there's always Browning's frightened business partner, Mades.
I think The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is actually more accomplished as a whodunit than as a locked room mystery with a murderer who was hiding in plain sight (always satisfying) who had an original motive to engineer a whole series of otherworldly crimes. Just like in previous novels, the plot resembles a Matryoshka doll with multiple, interconnected problems that not only includes a plethora of impossible crimes and elusive murderer, but a dying message that had to be violently pried from the victim's clenched fist or why the murderer had no option to sever the hands of the second victim – a kind of corpse puzzle you normally only come across in Japanese shin honkaku detective stories. Add to this the excellent clueing, the characterization of the two bantering detectives and all of the various, moving plot-strands grasped in an iron-clad grip demonstrating why Byrnside might very well turn out to be the herald of a Second Golden Age.
what about the impossibilities? Can they stand toe-to-toe with the
ten no-footprints novels and short stories mentioned above? Yes...
and no. The plot is crammed with the impossible crimes, but quantity
doesn't always mean quality and only two of them are good.
A Classic Mapback
Firstly, while the murder in the snow surrounded garage didn't came up with a new footprint-trick, everything else about this tricky murder made it an excellent impossibility with a good explanation why the witness at the window saw him fight with an invisible entity. Honestly, the whole situation that brought about this murder was quite clever and something that would have gotten the approval of Carr. Secondly, the murder in the locked and guarded bedroom has a routine solution, where the locked door and guard are concerned, but Byrnside succeeded in making one of my biggest no-noes perfectly acceptable and logical. And then there's the reason why the murderer had to cut off the hands. Unfortunately, the explanations to the past case with the severed hands that were left in a locked house or how the vampire was able to reach the balcony were underwhelming.
Nevertheless, when the plot resembles a nesting doll and practically everything is done correctly, the less than impressive explanations to two of the impossibilities is a blow the story can easily absorb without any damage to the overall plot. Byrnside continued to be awesome with how he handled the ending. Chapter 17 is a Challenge to the Reader asking eight questions that have to be answered before the case can be considered solved. Manory gives his explanation of the case at the annual dinner of the Detectives Club and there's a Rival Detective in attendance, Miss Genevieve Pond, who plays armchair detective and tries to deduce the solution before Manory gives it. I suspect she'll either become Manory's love interest in a future novel or become an antagonist when Byrnside decides to tackle the inverted detective story with an impossible, but it's probably the former. After all, Manory needs someone to bounce off on. They're polar opposites, is what I mean.
So, a long, rambling story short, Byrnside performed the hat trick with three back-to-back gems of the Western-style, neo-orthodox detective novel covering various styles and subgenres. All three are historical mysteries written in the typical, hardboiled style of the American pulps, but plotted and clued like a traditional, Golden Age detective stories filled with locked rooms, dying messages and bizarre murders – which all pay subtly homage to some of the greats of that bygone era. Goodnight Irene was an ambitious debut and The Opening Night Murders showed prodigious improvement with its labyrinthine plot, which can also be read as the two of the longest fan letters everyone has ever written to Christianna Brand. Byrnside moved away from using Brand as a foundation stone for his work and the result is The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is a fully realized, modern incarnation of the classic detective story that can stand on its own. One of the bright lights of 2020 and all three come highly recommended.
On a final note: sorry for the flurry of 2020 reviews, but had to rearrange some posts and cram them all in here.
Great review! I enjoyed so much this novel, even more of GI and TONM. The supernatural aspect is handled superbly,the clues are fantastic, the humour nice. A mix of Carr, Queen and Brand. A scene reminds me also of Roscoe's "Murder on the Way". I was able to answer only to one point of the challenge; for the no-footprints scenario I've imagined something on the line of "The White Priory Murder", but I was wrong. James is a great writer, I'll see a bright future for him.ReplyDelete
PS: Carr was great in this kind of impossibilities also in "White Priory" and the short story "King Arthur's Chair".
Thanks! That bright future you see is a Second Golden Age looming on the horizon. :)Delete
So excited to read all those books.ReplyDelete
Thanks for mentioning about the footprint trick( I have written a little story) with an original solution,I m now curious about works which feature an original solution of locked room mystery or vanishing tricks.
The titles I listed are a good place to start and you can find many more under the "locked room mysteries" tag and the muniment room at the top of the page. Hope you enjoy them!Delete
It's at times like this that I think there's a future for you and me, TC -- we agreeeee! Byrnside has been one of the great discoveries of my blogging tenure, and I'm so pleased to see him finding an audience who really get what he's trying to resurrect.ReplyDelete
He couldn't have picked a better time to begin than now with a renaissance age in full swing and self-publishing giving the time and space to grow and built an audience. Byrnside has made me more curious than ever before where the genre will be in ten, twenty years from now and how the fandom of that time will look back on this period.Delete
As a life long Illinoisan, I cracked up at the mention of "the recesses of untamed Illinois." I don't think we have any untamed Illinois. If it's not a city, it's probably farmland :D (I'm not saying that it's an incorrect discription, I don't know the first thing about Barrington Hills in 1920, I'm just saying that it's a funny one.)ReplyDelete
I really should give Byrnside a try one of these days. I mean, tbe very idea that there's a modern American novelist specifically writing impossible crimes should be enough to make me rush out to pick up all of his books, just to show my support. The one thing that's been stoping me (other than the insane length of my TBR pile being coupled with lack of reading time due to college courses) is the reviews of Goodnight Irene that talk about it being violent, without giving enough information to tell what that means. I've seen reviews calling the works of Yokomizo or Shimada violent, and I didn't see anything wrong with them, while, on the other end of the spectrum, I have no desire to read something gore-drenched á la Michael Slade or the average Scandi Noir. (To be fair, I don't want to read anything á la Scandi Noir, be it gore, bad plotting, or unlikable, angsty, overly psychoanalyzed characters.) I don't mind so much if it's essential to the clueing or the mystery, but I don't like it to be gratuitous. (And yes, I have seen the reviews of Barrington Hills pointing out that it definitely has some gore, but it's the third novel in the series, so I can worry about that when I come to it.)
You can compare the violence in Byrnside's novels to the corpse-puzzles found in Japanese shin honkaku mysteries (i.e. parts of the puzzle), but they're never as gory, or graphic, as in the slashers by Michael Slade. So you'll be fine.Delete
Don't have anything to say an bout the book but I feel compleed to comment on Kacey's crack about our state. You ought to explore the Illinois state parks, Kacey. You are most definitely missing out on "untamed Illinois." Joe and I were nearly murdered by hunters in one state park about ten or twelve years ago. Not as terrifying as Deliverance, but makes for an excellent campfire anecdote and one experience I hope never to be repeated. Southern Illinois for all its denigration in the press come election time is perhaps the most beautiful part of the state -- Cache River and Shawnee National Forest are among the highlights of underappreciated still very wild places.Delete
Not knowing exactly if it was ten or twelve years ago you were almost shot and killed is the most American part of your little campfire anecdote. Never change, you crazy bastards. ;DDelete
@TomCat: That's great to hear! Although I can't say for sure when I'll get to Goodnight Irene, Byrnside's works sound so good that it'll probably be within the next three months or so.ReplyDelete
@J F Norris: When I first read your comment, I was a bit confused, but, when I looked back at what I wrote, I noticed that I made a mistake. The part of the quote that I found amusing wasn't untamed, it was recesses. The (somewhat tenuous) reason for this is that I associate recesses with mountainous terrain and Illinois is a prairie state. Unfortunately, I wrote my comment past three in the morning after working on a statistics project (same as tonight, in fact), which caused my sleep deprived mind to stress the wrong word. (It may be noted that, even as I intended it, my observation was not as amusing as I thought it was, the connection between recesses and mountains not being all that strong.) My sincere apologies for the misunderstanding, I had no wish to cast aspersions on our great state.
This year, I've actually been visiting more state parks and historic sites, which has been a lot of fun. (Although nothing has yet unseated Starved Rock from its place as my favorite state park.) And I definately agree with you about Southern Illinois. I have family down that way and the drive to visit them is, especially in fall, breathtakingly beautiful.
"Byrnside's works sound so good that it'll probably be within the next three months or so."Delete
It's almost December. So maybe start dropping some not so subtle hints among your family and friends.
So it's better as a whodunit rather than an impossible crime story, huh? It sounds like the impossibilities are well-executed, but not necessarily original. Reminds me of a recent post on the authors blog saying that since there are only 20 or so locked room solutions, there's not much room for invention and therefore it's better to focus on misdirecting the reader from the standard solutions instead of originality. I'm not sure I entirely agree, but that seems the rationale for the impossibilities in tSCotBHVReplyDelete
I've said this before, but I'll say it again, it all depends on who's writing/plotting and particularly the Japanese have come up with some new and original locked room/impossible crime methods. Rintaro Norizuki's short story, "The Lure of the Green Door," is a good example that found a new solution to that old age problem, but you also have the marvelous Detective Conan episode, The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which has the added benefit that it could show how it was done. Something that made the trick even better. You can find these new and original tricks in practically every detective anime/manga series. Even the pulp-style series Fire Investigator Nanase found a new way to do it (“Petals of Envy” in vol. 1). Cor Docter's sadly untranslated Koude vrouw in Kralingen came up with a new way to present and explain a locked room murder, which I've never seen anywhere else before or since. I could cite many more examples. So there definitely more than twenty, but coming up with another one requires some imagination.Delete
"I'm not sure I entirely agree, but that seems the rationale for the impossibilities in tSCotBHV"
Yeah, kind of. You shouldn't read it solely for the impossible crimes, because they're part of a bigger picture.
I'm offended you think I would write an inverted detective story. :) Glad you enjoyed it.ReplyDelete
My sincere apologies for daring to suggest you would consider penning something as common and unseemly as an inverted mystery. But keep up the good job with the locked rooms and whodunits!Delete
I don't remember the name of author but I have read two short stories of his in a collection where the both solutions were original-(huge spoilers of tricks)the first one was a man found dead in his locked car with only the car tracks reaching him and the second story is the one where a man found died just after going out in stopped snow and the solutions were for the first the culprit use another tire of to reprint the tire tracks after walking off and for the second one a murderer used arrow tied with knife and then recovered the arrow with balloons and fishing rope!ReplyDelete