The Opening Night Murders by James Scott Byrnside

The Opening Night Murders
James Scott Byrnside
Originally Published 2019
Rowan Mallory #2
Preceded by Goodnight Irene

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.

Further Reading

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.

Death in Paradise: Series Three

The third series of Death in Paradise is the first to ring significant changes to the cast. Ben Miller departs early in the series to be replaced by Kris Marshall who at this point was best known for his role in the long-running sitcom My Family.

Time for what may possibly be a controversial opinion: I prefer DI Goodman to DI Poole. This is not saying anything negative about Ben Miller who is entertaining but rather that I think Goodman brings something new and interesting to the show.

Where Poole tried to retain his sense of structure and British identity, Goodman is trying to reinvent himself. The comedy comes from his misjudged attempts to integrate to life on Saint-Marie which I think offers more room for the character to grow.

I think it helps as well that this season sets a high standard in terms of the stories it is telling. There are several stories that have striking premises such as Ye of Little Faith, The Early Bird and Rue Morgue and I appreciated that the secondary characters seem to get a little more to do this season.

Next time around I’ll be looking at the show’s fourth season which will bring further changes to the cast.

Continue reading “Death in Paradise: Series Three”

Death in Paradise: Series Two

DiP2This continues my series of posts I started recently about the mystery series Death in Paradise. This time we are moving onto the show’s second series which retained the core cast from the first though it is clear that there was a slight tweaking of the tone with several of the stories here containing darker elements.

While there were not many contenders for my eventual Top 5 Death in Paradise episodes among the stories from this series, I felt that the average standard was higher than in the series before. Only A Deadly Curse struck me as dull.

Other stories in the season are far stronger, particularly A Dash of Sunshine which combines excellent sleuthing with the entertaining dynamics.

Next time I’ll take a look at the third series which sees the first of many changes to the Honoré Police Station roster.

Continue reading “Death in Paradise: Series Two”

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

MarchOnce again my busy schedule has struck and I have had to reach for a piece I had penned about a mystery television series. For those whose interests lie solely in the printed page rest assured that book reviews are coming!

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a television series from the mid-50s based on John Dickson Carr’s short stories set in the Department of Queer Events within Scotland Yard. The premise is not dissimilar from Roy Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends in that it exists to investigate offbeat, odd and otherwise inexplicable cases.

I should say up front that I haven’t read the short stories. Part of the reason that this post has been on the shelf was that I had hoped to track down an affordable copy but having spent months trying I am having to give up. As keen as I am to read it, I can’t justify spending close to $200 on a copy right now, particularly as people whose opinions I trust say it’s not Carr’s best work. Someday I will hope to rectify that.

The star of the show was Boris Karloff who was, of course, most famous for his roles in monster movies several decades earlier. This is a significantly different type of role and he plays his part with a sort of wry, good humor, often needling his colleague Inspector Ames (Ewan Roberts) who appears in most of the episodes and Inspector Goron of the French Surete (Eric Pohlmann) who is a semi-regular guest.

The stories themselves are quite uneven in quality and they do suffer from the limitations of the filming styles and constraints of the period as well as the short running time. As a result of the latter plots can sometimes feel a little flimsy or key elements stand out a little too much but even the episodes that don’t work brilliantly as mysteries will usually be quite entertaining in terms of the performances or broader concepts.

Some stories do stand out as being strong however such as the first episode, The Sorcerer, which features a simple idea but a clever and effective one. Fans of Carr’s gothic elements will likely enjoy The Talking Head which I think stands up best of the series as a whole and has a very clever explanation. Death and the Other Monkey and The Stolen Crime are also each excellent, particularly the latter which I consider one of the strongest episodes of the show.

I will say that this series does require a little patience with and tolerance for 1950s television. The viewer will often notice the limitations of the studio space (Passage at Arms struck me as somewhat ludicrous), slightly misplayed lines and, of course, somewhat static RP performances. Fortunately the latter is nowhere near as bad as you might expect given the era and fans of British films and television from the era may enjoy some of the before-they-were-famous guest appearances. Of these the Christopher Lee appearance in At Night All Cats Are Gray stands out for his attempts at an extremely questionable French accent.

Though it can be a little rough around the edges, Colonel March of Scotland Yard is frequently imaginative and fun. Episodes zip by and while I sometimes wanted an extra plot element to sink my teeth into, the content is usually good. If you have never sought it out before I would suggest that it is certainly worth a look.

The broadcast order of these episodes differs by territory so I am going by the sequence they are in on Amazon Instant Video. Summaries and comments on every single episode follow after the cut.

Continue reading “Colonel March of Scotland Yard”

Death in Paradise: Series One

DiP1Almost all of the posts on this blog are about mystery novels and short story collections but there are times I like to branch out a little. Death in Paradise has been on the air since 2011 and is something of a locked room fan’s dream. Most of the episodes feature either a locked room or impossible murder, all set against the backdrop of the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie.

The first I heard about the show was when it was announced that Kris Marshall was leaving and people were speculating that he might be the new Doctor Who but I only started watching it after reading some posts from Puzzle Doctor about the show and discovering that it was available here through Netflix.

This first season starred Ben Miller as DI Poole, an English Police Detective who is assigned to the island to investigate the murder of his predecessor. His team takes an episode to settle into place, eventually comprising DS Camille Bordey (Sara Martins), Officer Fidel Best (Gary Carr) and Officer Dwayne Myers (Danny John-Jules). Élizabeth Bourgine appears as Camile’s mother Catherine and Don Warrington makes several appearances as Commissioner Patterson (though not nearly enough for my tastes – he is one of the best things about the show).

The first episode of the show essentially establishes the concept and DI Poole as a lead character, focusing on his discomfort in his new surroundings. Later episodes continue to explore his awkwardness but within the context of the broader dynamics of his team. These interpersonal relationships are the source of many of the comedic elements found within the show and much of its charm. Even the weaker stories within the season get a lift from this sort of banter though happily the standard of the stories in this season is pretty high.

Highlights from this season include Predicting MurderSpot the Difference and Music of Murder. The first of those stories features a woman prophesying her own death in a voodoo ceremony at the hands of a scarred man before being found dead the following day in her (scarred) ex son-in-law’s classroom. Spot the Difference has the wonderful premise that a man is murdered while handcuffed to DI Poole while Music of Murder features a musician being murdered while he is lying inside a coffin.

There are only a few stories that struck me as being disappointing. The impossibility in Wicked Wedding Night collapses too easily and I felt DI Poole acts a little out-of-character in Missing a Body? although I did enjoy his banter with Camille in that story. Both of those stories are still quite entertaining in spite of the issues I had with them.

Overall I felt that the show had a strong and fairly consistent first series. The storylines were fun and creative and I really enjoyed the interactions of the cast although I was left wanting a little more for Dwayne and Fidel to do (I do think that subsequent seasons give the rest of the team more to do).

Continue reading “Death in Paradise: Series One”

The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter, Translated by John Pugmire

The Tiger’s Head
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #5
Preceded by The Madman’s Room
Followed by The Seventh Hypothesis

It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read and wrote about a Paul Halter novel though I have had several up near the top of my TBR list. The Tiger’s Head was my selection mostly because I was tantalized by its premise of a murder committed in a locked room by a genie. As it happens though this is just one of three mysteries within the novel.

Each of those three mysteries is presented as a separate case and yet have considerable overlap as they involve the same community and cast of characters. The first is the murder and dismemberment of several young women, the second is the murder of a retired major in a locked room and the final one is the ongoing series of thefts of seemingly random items of limited value around the small village of Leadenham.

Let’s start with the least of these – the thefts. Though it is introduced almost as a background storyline, Halter does not treat it as such. While it may not be the case that brings Dr. Twist to Leadenham, it has plenty of points of interest (not least that everyone in the village has an alibi for one or more of the crimes) and could easily have made for an entertaining short story in its own right. I certainly enjoyed the resolution and discovering how it played into the other story threads.

The second story thread, the murder of the Major, is the one that the novel is named for and it presents us with our most traditional locked room elements. There is, ostensibly, a supernatural element at play: the Major had told a story about how he had won the Tiger’s Head cane from a fakir while in India and that it contains a genie that can kill. The Major had challenged a friend to stay with him in a room where every door and window is locked from the inside and wait for the genie to appear. When their friends get worried they break into the room to find the Major dead and the doubter lying unconscious from head injuries, claiming that he saw and was attacked by the genie.

Now, I will say that I do not love the conceit of a room with the locked doors under observation by individuals – it is too obvious how this sort of a puzzle can be broken. Happily Halter gets on with it, almost immediately acknowledging that not everyone’s story can be true and getting on with trying to unpick people’s alibis.

This puzzle is, in my opinion, the cleverest of the three mechanically (while it plays fair, I would be astounded if anyone was able to deduce exactly how it was achieved) and if the book has a fault it may be that it chooses to present the solution to this three-quarters of the way through rather than at the close. Structurally there are some good reasons for this because of the ways the three stories connect but it does mean that the most intriguing and complex aspects of the narrative are already done as the book enters its endgame.

Twist and Hurst’s original reason for being in Leadenham is to hunt the ‘Suitcase Killer’, who has dismembered young women and put their limbs into suitcases which have been left at train stations. The premise is usually gruesome for Halter but I think he sets up the situation quite brilliantly, reminding me in some aspects of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries. Unfortunately it is one of those cases where I can’t really reveal which story it is without giving away some of the parallel plot points. I can say though that there are some really satisfying moments, not least one that comes at the end of one of the early chapters that actually had me gasping in surprise.

Readers may feel that this story thread does slide into the background a little too easily at points in the narrative given that we are talking about the actions of a serial killer who we should expect would strike again. I think though that Halter does present a credible reason why Twist and Hurst get distracted from this case and focus in on the other mysterious events taking place in Leadenham.

The explanation given for what happened and why is clever, particularly in how it relates to the other storylines. There is some very clever plotting and narrative sleight of hand at play here and while I think it plays its strongest surprise a little too early (and is mechanically fairly straightforward), I found the solution to be significantly more satisfying than I expected though I share Brad’s dissatisfaction with an aspect of the ending that does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

In spite of this however I have little difficulty in pronouncing this a triumph and one of the most satisfying experiences I have had with Halter to date. The quality of the run of books Halter produced between The Madman’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor is truly impressive and while I think The Seventh Hypothesis is a more satisfying read overall, I think this is a close runner up winning points for its creativity and imagination.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not written a review of this on his blog but he did discuss it on an episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. He also includes it on his Five to Try: Starting Paul Halter post. Finally, it places highly on his Top 15 LRI publications list.

The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel also recommended the book, albeit with some reservations. These include feeling that one of the locked room resolutions is ‘utter rubbish’ and thinking a motive is over the top. I do agree with his general sentiment that Halter’s problem is often that he throws too many elements in, not giving them the room to be properly developed.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog is not always Halter’s biggest fan but he says that he was pleasantly surprised for the first three quarters of the novel and loved one of the explanations for a locked room. Unfortunately his experience was spoiled by a final scene reveal and by Halter not really trying to hide whodunnit.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was responsible for pushing this book higher up my TBR when he reviewed it toward the end of last year. He comments on how no individual solution is brilliant but the way they are brought together is ‘misdirection at its finest’.

Malice by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith

Malice
Keigo Higashino
Originally Published 1996
Detective Kaga #4
Preceded by どちらかが彼女を殺した
Followed by 私が彼を殺した
(Neither title has been released yet in English)

In any mystery novel that seeks to actively engage the reader there is a question that they have to solve. The most common of these is the question of who carried out the crime but there are, of course, other questions a writer may focus on instead.

Impossible crime novels, for instance, shift the focus from who onto the question of how a crime was committed. And then there are inverted mystery novels.

As I noted in my recent Five to Try post, the most common structure for these sorts of stories is the howcatchem. In those stories the reader knows the killer’s identity but has to work out how their seemingly perfect plan will be picked apart by the detective. There is also another form that is used far less frequently – the whydunnit – in which readers learn the killer’s identity but must try to learn the reasons for an apparently senseless or counterproductive crime. Malice is an example of this latter, somewhat unusual style of mystery.

I suspect that the reason that I have not encountered many whydunnits is simply that it is a hard form to sustain for a whole novel. If you are inside the killer’s head then it is near-impossible for the writer to find a way to naturally withhold that information from the reader. Also, let’s face it, motivations for crimes are often rather repetitive. When this type of crime novel is done well however it can be an electrifying experience.

Malice is a whydunnit done well.

The novel is almost entirely told from two perspectives. One is the children’s novelist Osamu Nonoguchi and the other is Kyoichiro Kaga, the police detective investigating the murder that takes place.

Initially it seems that Osamu has been chosen as a narrator because he discovered the body of his friend, the popular novelist Kunihiko Hidaka. The first chapter certainly gives the impression that we will be in familiar whodunnit territory as it describes the events of the evening of Hidaka’s death.

The crime takes place in a locked study within a locked house to which only two people (the victim and his wife) possess keys. I suppose that could qualify the novel as being a locked room puzzle but I do not want to oversell that aspect of the book. It really isn’t anything like the focus of the book and that aspect of the solution is probably its least interesting or creative part.

Instead we soon learn information that will make the killer’s identity clear to the reader (assuming they haven’t read the book’s blurb which also gives it away). We even discover how they carried out their plan, in effect removing the questions of who and how from the reader’s consideration. The biggest question that remains for both the detective and the reader is why they have decided to do this, particularly on the eve of the victim’s relocation from Japan to Canada.

This question might initially appear to be quite simple but I found it to be surprisingly satisfying. Part of the reason for this is that the killer refuses to assist the investigation in learning about their motives yet they are willing to confess to the crime itself. This builds on to the sense of mystery the author has cultivated up to that point as we wonder what they may be trying to hide and also what their goal is in not fighting the charge itself.

The other reason that I think the questions of motivation are interesting is that it affects whether we are looking at an instance of murder or manslaughter. These two crimes obviously carry significantly different penalties but they may also affect the way we look at the crime and the killer.

In most respects I think the plot works pretty well as a puzzle though I will throw in the typical caveat that I am not sure that the reader can work out the entire solution for themselves. Rather it is a plot where everything makes sense once it is explained and I did find some aspects of the solution to be both surprising and satisfying.

While I had little difficulty following the puzzle, Detective Kaga made less of an impression on me than I had hoped. I do wonder to what extent that reflects that this was a later story in the series, even though this was the first to be translated into English. Certainly I think we get little sense of who he is away from his job which is a shame, though I did respond to his cautious, methodical approach to solving the murder and thought he showed some ingenuity at times (there is a part of the explanation for how it was worked that is really very clever).

It is in terms of its thematic discussion that I think the book really stands out. What Higashino does particularly well is explore questions of what it means to be creative and the nature of the publishing industry while telling an interesting, character-driven mystery.

His characters are interesting, credible and fully formed, particularly the two writers. I can only echo John Grant’s opinion (linked to below and stated far more eloquently than I could manage) that Higashino is particularly effective when exploring their personalities and temperaments.

Overall, I found this to be a quick but really engaging read. I would certainly be willing to revisit the author and his lead detective again in the future.

Further Reading

John Grant posted his thoughts on this book on Goodreads which he says he enjoyed even more than The Devotion of Suspect X. He particularly responded to the elements of the story that draw on writer’s preoccupations and passions which was one of the aspects I enjoyed most too.

Ella Jauffret offers up a recipe for udon noodles inspired by the book and for a coffee jelly as part of her FictionFood series.