The Golden Age style of detective fiction seemingly died out decades ago, as publishing houses began to look away from anything in the style and instead started to focus on dark psychological thrillers and “cozy” puzzlers set in small New England towns. Of course, a few works managed to slip through the cracks, but aside from some speciality publishers, mysteries in the style that I’ve come to adore barely managed to survive. But as the modern era dawned upon us, a new beastial force was unleashed; self publishing, along with the monstrous conglomerate that is Amazon. Suddenly, an entirely new field opened up, allowing for classics mysteries, new and old, to finally resurface from decades of languishing in obscurity. However, besides the tidal waves of reprints that soon came, I’ve always had an aversion to more modern works, even if they claimed to be “classic” or “in the same vein as Christie.”
A few months ago, JJ at The Invisible Event reviewed one such mystery novel, as part of his “Adventures in Self Publishing” series. He described Goodnight Irene as “one of the best original impossible crime novels of 2018″ and “the exact sort of thing that I wanted to find in these self published wanderings.” Naturally, this was enough to get me interested, and as a few more more glowing reviews poured in, I realized that if I was ever going to dive into the world of self publishing, it might be with this bloody and insane tale.
Goodnight Irene utilizes one of the most hoary troupes in GAD to create its backbone; the put them together in a isolated location and kill them off one by one, made famous by our incredibly forgotten Mrs. Christie and an army of writers inspired by her nimble hand. The basic idea is that Robert Lasciva invites two detectives to his Mississippian estate – Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, after receiving a threatening note saying that bad things will happen to him on his 55th birthday. Manory is still recovering from a botched case that scarred him a few months back, but once he realizes a connection between Robert and his late mother, he decides to say “to hell with it” and accept Lasciva’s offer. What soon follows is a cascade of death, as people are found poisoned, beheaded, and even disappear in impossible circumstances, with a flood creating an even more dramatic backdrop for the events.
Now, this all sounds like what would happen if Murder on the Way! met And Then There Were None and a child resulted from the union, but does it actually work? The answer is – yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. While the narrative is certainly jam packed with what could only be described as a tidal wave of separate events and conundrums, its all woven together with a fine hand that harkens one back to any Golden Age novel, and almost makes it feel like you are reading something from the period. Instead of watching everything crash and burn as the structuring could not match the plotting, we get a finely tuned puzzle that does not remind one of other modern works, and instead is its own beast.
You get the sense that Byrnside is drawing heavily from stories that encompass the central pillars of the Golden Age, and he draws from the best of the Golden Age. The actual solution to all of the madness has its brilliance, and tries to be a unique sum of parts instead of being a direct rip off or cheat. The solutions to the impossibilities aren’t incredible per se, but one finds that they satisfy enormously and also have unique facets that I’ve not seen for a while. I especially enjoyed the impossible disappearance of Aunt Bernice, plus the poisoning of Jake Tellum, whose dying message also holds one of the smarter bits of work here. Theres an organic origin point for all of the mess that occurs at the Lavisca house, and we also watch as the prologue and character work done in the beginning ties into the eventual conclusion. While culprit might not be the most interesting focal point, we get some ingenuity in the form of, for lack of a less spoilery tone, physical happenstance.
Its very pulpy when cut down to its essential components, but its not the sort of pulp that makes you tear your hair our, its the kind of pulp that can go hand in hand with a mystery as shown in Theodore Roscoe’s stories. We are smack dab in the middle of Prohibition era America, and the historical intricacies of the period are applied directly to the plot, adding clues and backdrop, such as the Great Mississippi Flood and Robert Lavisca’s business practices. It doesn’t devolve into the stereotypical noir style that mental images of the time inevitably bring up, but takes the pulp and period in order to directly forge a unique atmosphere.
Most importantly, its a riot to read. On top of a well dispersed plot and excellent atmosphere work, it genuinely has moments of humor that don’t clash with the understandably gloomy proceedings. Manory and Williams are the detective duo at its zenith, and they provide light comedy that plays on elements of mystery stories that I couldn’t help but laugh at. We get gems like “I have seen the swallowing of jewels, a pufferfish poisoning, and a woman strangled with her own cat” and it doesn’t feel at all out of place, it instead helps bring the story, and characters of the people involved, up. Besides the wit, this is simply the sort of story I’d call a guilty pleasure for impossible crime fans, or really any fan of this sort of mystery. There is no need for realism or scientific exploits here, its all meant to entertain, and when you’re diving into the story, it does.
There are some flaws here. The last half or so feels a bit rushed and some of the starting chapters are a bit confusing in terms of pacing and placement, but this is a debut work, and those flaws are minor in comparison to just how much good work Byrnside has done. Its an onslaught of pure action and mystery, and the fact of the matter is that this could very well pass off as a novel from the original Golden Age, minus some of the crude language and more modern phrasing.
Goodnight Irene is exactly what I want when I hear about a book published in the modern era that is described as “in the style of the Golden Age, Christie, Carr, etc”. Byrnside has real talent in this area of fiction, and it shows. The story emulates so many classic stories and builds upon them to create something oh so similar and yet oh so distinct. You could very well describe this as a masterful performance, or a class act, and I’d have to nod in agreement. So if you’re a fan of impossible crimes, then I highly suggest you pick up this gorgeous piece of storytelling and prepare yourself for a enjoyable and rewarding ride. When it comes to rating this, I may have hesitated in giving it this high of a score, but you know what? This is my blog, and I get to make my own choices. A gold medal or 5/5 is given to this, and I now I eagerly await the publication of The Opening Night Murders in a few days.
3 thoughts on “Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside”
It’s fabulous, isn’t it? What a find Byrnside has turned out to be, I’m thrilled to see people reading and loving this. And his second one is out in a week…exciting times!