I wish more mystery novels – specifically impossible crime stories, used vampires as a plot device. Sure, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, etc are fun, but there’s just something brimming with potential when it comes to the possibility of a vampire conducting impossible crimes. Invisibility, the ability to fly/transform at will, and an insatiable bloodlust are all characteristics that seem to lend well to crimes in locked rooms, closely watched towers, and snow surrounded garages. The image of a pale, human but not human, and decaying figure stalking down participants in a GA style detective story is irresistible to me. Its a troupe that’s resulted in one of my favorite books of all time in He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr, a book where the supernatural possibilities of the vampire are fleshed out to excellent affect.
James Scott Byrnside has been a wonderful development in the world of self published mysteries, combining Golden Age sensibilities and plotting with more modern prose and pacing. His debut novel of Goodnight Irene was a mesmerizing first dip into the waters of GA inspired mystery writing, one that was reminiscent of an impossible crime version of And Then There Were None. The follow up – The Opening Night Murders, was an improvement to Irene, and one of the best I’ve read this past year, spurring excitement for his forthcoming third book. Byrnside has been teasing TSCotBHV for ages now, and my excitement has only grown as he shared sparse updates on his blog. This morning, I was shocked to wake up and see that the book had come to Kindle one day earlier than expected, but I still quickly downloaded and read it in the blink of an eye. So, does it live up to my expectations? Let’s find out!
The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire, which will be called Hills from now on for convenience, starts off with Rowan Manory being asked down to the aforementioned town by a Mr. Browning, who offers to pay him an exorbitant amount of money if he manages to debunk a seance. Naturally, he accepts, and goes with his Watson, Walter Williams. Barrington Hills looks like a ghost town, inhabited only by Browning and his associates, and a small community of gypsies. Mr. Browning owns Barrington Hills with his partner Hadd Mades, and plans to develop it into a resort town, but Mades has become unresponsive to the idea in recent weeks. This is due to the seemingly psychic powers of Madame Cuchla, the local medium, which warn of a vampire striking him and Browning if they choose to go on with the project. The vampire is supposedly Otto Savore, a recluse who, as legend states, killed 50 people in Barrington before finally being stopped by the townspeople.
Naturally, Browning invites most of his family and business associates to a seance at Barrington, where Madame Cuchla will supposedly summon the spirit of the vampire, and it becomes clear to Manory that he’s there to ensure Mades doesn’t give up on the development. So, the seance happens, and the mystery really kicks into full swing as Manory picks apart and reveals all of the tricks Cuchla used to make it seem realistic.
The opening of the story really reminds me of Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, and I think even by reading my cursory summary, most readers of that book would agree. The invitation to participate in a seance, the isolated house, and the eventual debunking of all that happens during the seance are all things that are part of Pit’s opening. I think it works superbly here. From the minute the book describes Manory entering Barrington Hills, we are engulfed in a rich atmosphere of horror and tension, and the seance that follows only adds to that. The way Manory picks apart Cuchla’s tricks and shows the thought process behind his deductions makes for such enjoyable reading, teasing us with only a taste of the revelations to come, and it also allows for the stage to be set for the incoming murder and havoc thats about to hit these pages like a snowstorm.
Following the seance, those within the household go to bed, assuming that the potential for a murderous vampire to attack them is now slim to none. But the next day comes and following a flash snowstorm, a scream is heard from the houses garage. Rushing to the scene, Manory finds Browning dead, with slash marks on his wrist, a twisted back, and most shockingly, two puncture marks on his neck! And to make things worse, the footprints show that Browning was the only one to approach or enter the garage. Did the Barrington Hills Vampire finally strike again, after a dormancy of 50 years?
What follows is something that feels like a lightning strike of a book, because I truly was finishing it up within a few hours of starting. Hills is perfectly plotted and paced. Following the first murder, we get to a second part that is crammed full of investigation, new puzzles, and layered revelations. It feels like every pages add some sort of new twist into the fold, and its not done in a way that makes the reader feel fatigued. All of these added ploys fit right into the larger picture of the story, and only contribute to the success of the main plot. Even though this middle section has a chapter called “Dragging the Marsh”, there’s no point in it where it actually feels like thats happening. In fact, this read almost like a Paul Halter novel, with the inventive impossible scenarios, heavy suggestions of the supernatural, and fast pace. I definitely mean it as a compliment, because it doesn’t have most of the flaws that Halter novel’s usually come with. We even get a Challenge to the Reader right before the solution is revealed, something that pleasantly surprised me, and had the brilliant touch of listing out all the necessary questions that needed to be answered to solve the case.
I think one of my favorites things about this book is the sense of atmosphere and how it’s maintained throughout. There are very few mysteries that I can say have actually creeped me out, with most of them being translated honkaku style mysteries from East Asia, but I can gladly say that Hill’s manages to successfully evoke this underlying sense of terror. While reading, there was a point where I just couldn’t see any other option besides an actual living, breathing vampire being behind everything that was going on. There are two really superb scenes that I think best exemplify this horror element. The first is at the very start of the book, when the legend of Otto Savore is conveyed, and the second comes at the end of the second section. For fear of it being too much of a spoiler, I’ll omit the exact details, but I think you’ll get what I’m talking about if you’ve read it!
Of course, a mystery is often only as strong as it’s solution, and I think Hills has success in this department as well. The denouement comes at a meeting of this books very own Detection Club, where Manory presents the facts of the case to a group of detectives just like him, and challenges them to figure it out. We are treated to a back and forth discussion with Manory’s biggest rival, as they both reveal the reasonings behind what happened at Barrington Hills in bits and pieces. The solution to the impossible murder in the garage is, in my opinion, quite brilliant. It plays up a lot on the exact circumstances of the crime, and it uses a trick that Byrnside has touched on before, except spun in a way that I find even more effective. I was a bit confused at first by it, but after rereading it once or twice, I completely got it. There are two other impossible crimes, and while one is basically negligible in solution, the other is wonderful, preying on the psychology of the characters within the story to create something that, at first, might seem disappointing, but upon closer examination, becomes perfect in the context of the mystery presented.
Another thing that the denouement showed to me was just how strong the clueing actually was. So many of these little fragments and puzzle pieces come together in order to accurately depict what actually happened, and I was flashing back to detail after detail as I flipped through those last few pages, seeing how everything connected and lined up perfectly. There are so many good clues, and honestly might have enjoyed finding out why some of these clues were put into place over all of the solutions to the impossible crimes! There’s an especially excellent reason behind why the vampire came to being that made me go “wow”.
I can’t however, say much about the culprit and motive. I think that might be my biggest gripe with Hill’s, because while it works, it can feel like a “oh, well that was why” sort of thing. I can get what Byrnside was trying to go for in his choice of villain and motivation, but it just fell flat for me if I’m being honest. But, I wouldn’t say this detracts much from the book, because everything else is in such a state of synergy that it easily outweighs it and makes it seem like a pretty minor flaw.
Before closing out the review, I’d also like to praise Brynside’s writing style. There’s so much wit within his dialogue, in a way that reminds me of Christianna Brand. I had a lot of moments in my reading where I laughed out loud, and his prose manages to combine both a sense of the past with a more modern touch. He might be using profanity in a Golden Age inspired mystery novel set in the 1920s, but it never, ever, feels out of place. I feel like I remember reading him say that he wanted this book to be equal parts horror and humor, and I think he manages it without much stumbling.
Overall, I think The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is the strongest work by James Scott Byrnside to date. Its got so much to love within it, and it’s another story that I can add to the scant category of vampire inspired murder mysteries. I love how with every book, I can see him improving and growing his ability as a mystery author, as you would see with say, Agatha Christie as her career progressed. One can only hope that he’ll manage to produce at least half as many novels as she did, but I’ll be eagerly waiting the (hopefully) coming JSB #4. Until then, go out and read Hills, or another of his three books, you won’t regret it!