Originally Published 2019
Rowan Mallory #2
Preceded by Goodnight Irene
Chicago. 1935. The Great Depression has brought America to its knees, and the people are dying for some entertainment. Luckily for them, a murder has been scheduled for opening night at The Red Rising Theater. When the lead actress receives a death threat, Detective Rowan Manory and his partner Walter Williams agree to take the case. Neither realizes the curtain is rising on the deadliest and most vexing mystery of their career. There will be 200 witnesses in the seats and not a single suspect on the stage. Could this be the perfect murder? The Opening Night Murders is a thrilling impossible crime novel that will keep you guessing from the first clue right up to the shocking finale.
I was recently looking back over my past few months of reviews and I came to a shocking realization: it has been almost half a year since I last read an impossible crime novel (that was The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter). Clearly that couldn’t be allowed to stand so after a quick review of my TBR pile I decided to give James Scott Byrnside’s The Opening Night Murders a shot.
Detective Rowan Mallory is approached by the actress Lisa Pluviam who tells him that she has received an anonymous death threat warning her that she will be killed on her play’s opening night. She asks him for his protection which he agrees to give, noting that the letter could only have been placed in her dressing room by one of the cast or crew.
During the performance Rowan and his partner Walter have each of the suspects under observation when Lisa topples over the balcony and falls to her death. No one was near her at the time she fell and yet while the police want to declare the death an accident, Rowan isn’t so sure…
That is a rather cut-down plot synopsis but I think it gives us a solid starting point to work from. For one thing this blend of the forewarned and impossible crime styles means that we are looking not only for tensions but for the possible mechanisms that might be used long before the murder actually takes place, effectively building up our tension and interest in those early chapters as we get to know the characters.
One of the things I appreciated about Byrnside’s writing of these early chapters is the clarity he is able to provide about characters’ positioning at the key moments leading up to and after the murder takes place. I had no difficulty visualizing the appearance of the crime and I liked that the alibis are not established by third parties but by the detectives themselves, allowing us to have confidence in the facts of the case.
The chapters that follow are just as strong as Byrnside drops a multitude of hints (and a fair few red herrings) that help build our understanding of each of the suspects and seem to suggest different possible explanations for why they would want Lisa dead. Following some of those trails can be quite exhilarating, in part because Byrnside paces those moments so well that it feels that you are almost always encountering some new fact or idea that changes your conception of the case.
One of the biggest moments comes with the second murder in the novel which is a vicious and apparently quite instinctive affair that seems quite different from Lisa’s death. Understanding how those two crimes relate to one another is key to figuring out what has happened and why and yet Byrnside’s construction of the story is so cleverly handled that I felt genuinely awestruck by that aspect of the explanation at the end (see TomCat’s review, linked below, for an even better explanation of why that is one of the most interesting parts of the novel).
Byrnside does provide us with a number of suspects to consider and does a pretty good job of distinguishing them, making it fairly easy to follow this phase of the novel. This is just as well as he does not do much to whittle down the suspect list for much of the story, with most suspects remaining highly credible until the big reveal takes place.
On the subject of the solution my feelings are a little mixed. On a mechanical level I think the plan was very creative and original and I was pleasantly surprised that the psychology of the crime is treated as being as important to the solution as those mechanisms. Everything felt logical and consistent to me, even if I was taken in by a false solution.
The reason I was a little disappointed was that the way that information is relayed to the reader. While the ideas are logical and interesting, they are quite complex and it is communicated to the reader in quite a long and dense speech in which alternative possibilities are acknowledged. I understand why this choice was made and I would concede that it pays off positively in other respects but I think it both highlights the artificiality of that moment that the sleuth wouldn’t be very direct and adds a possibility of confusion at a moment where the goal should be clarity. That being said, the pay-off to that sequence is so good that I can be persuaded to overlook it.
I did really enjoy spending time with Byrnside’s pair of sleuths and I respected that he is able to provide them with quite distinctive voices and personalities. Their friendship is so central to the novel and I loved the sort of friendly rivalry and conflict they have at times, particularly on the question of what should come next for them. I should acknowledge however that while their relationship is perfectly clear for anyone who might pick up this book before the previous title in the series, readers should be aware that it spoils substantial parts of the solution to that story. This, in my opinion, is unfortunate, particularly as that information is not really used for any great purpose here and I think the scene could have been just as effective if the case had been discussed in a more abstract way.
As for the period setting, I think it is sometimes used quite effectively. For instance, the sequence in which we see some characters attend a party struck me as done effectively, showing a different side to this era than we will often see represented. On the other hand, there are some uses of language that struck me as a little anachronistic but not in such a way as it felt like it was being done deliberately as a stylistic choice. I can’t say that it undermined my enjoyment of the story in any significant way but it does mean that while I enjoyed the setting, I wouldn’t recommend it as an example of the historical mystery novel genre.
I would have no compunction however in happily recommending it to any readers who enjoy an impossible crime. The premise is clever, the solution imaginative and the characters, compelling – particularly the two sleuths who I look forward to encountering again in the vampire-themed prequel that gets referenced during this adventure.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time declares the novel another sign of a really exciting new voice in neo-orthodox mystery writing (I love that description by the way). I agree with almost everything in that review – particularly the comments about the comparison between the first and second murders which are really perceptive.
JJ @ The Invisible Event is similarly very excited by Byrnside’s work although he does suggest that the solution, while smart and inventive, requires some careful reading to understand.
Meanwhile Brad @ Ah, Sweet Mystery provides some superb perspective on the theater angles of the novel and while he prefers the first installment, heartily recommends it.