The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire by James Scott Byrnside

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Rowan Mallory #3
Note: though this is the third novel published in the series, it is set before the other two.

The Blurb

In 1880, a vampire terrorized Barrington Hills, feasting on the locals and leaving their mutilated corpses as evidence. Now, forty years later, it’s happening again.

Detective Rowan Manory and his assistant Walter Williams are hired to investigate. They don’t believe in the undead, but nothing else could explain murders so bloodily impossible. How does the killer walk through walls? Why doesn’t it leave footprints in the snow? Who will it kill next?

Can the detectives solve the case before the vampire strikes again? Can you?

The Verdict

A complex and ingeniously plotted novel featuring multiple cunning impossibilities to solve.

“A vampire, Lon Chaney here at the wheel, and snow tornados – man alive, what have you gotten us into?”

My Thoughts

Some impossible crime novels have a really great central premise or hook that everything is built around. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire can boast several. These include a no footprints crime, a dying message, a locked room murder, a séance and an apparent supernatural creature of legend apparently responsible for it all. For the fan of impossible crime stories this is a veritable smorgasbord of criminous delights, each treated seriously and given the space and time they deserve.

Several years ago I reviewed Byrnside’s previous novel, The Opening Night Murders, which I enjoyed a lot. This novel is actually set before either of its two predecessors meaning that those new to the series can start here and feel completely able to follow what is going on. Meanwhile those who read and loved the two previous titles will enjoy discovering more about a case that had been heavily teased in that previous volume.

Private detective Rowan Mallory is delighted to receive an invitation to address a gathering of the Detectives Club in London, an organization made up of some of the world’s most elite sleuths. He is to tell the story of his most famous case. When he receives a phone call from one of Chicago’s richest men asking him to debunk a séance for an outrageous payment he finds himself unable to turn down the job and sets out for the home, accompanied by his ‘Watson’ Walter.

When Rowan arrives in the town of Barrington Hills he meets with Browning and the other members of his household and learns something of the local lore. Decades earlier a man reputed to be a vampire was buried alive after there had been a number of deaths, including two particularly gruesome murders. Locals note that no grass will grow on his grave and they remain afraid of the idea that he might return from the dead again.

At the séance things take a spooky turn when after the medium appears to speak in the voice of the vampire, saying that they want the blood of Browning and his friend Hådd Mades, the face of a vampire appears on the ceiling. Further unsettling events occur, including the inexplicable appearance of the vampire in a photograph taken, but things are escalated when a mutilated body is found in the early hours of the morning with just the victim’s footprints in the snow leading to the murder site and a single pair of footprints on the building’s roof.

I think this outline already shows the diversity of ideas at play here and I want to stress that there are further surprises and developments to discover. As different as some of these elements are, each of them can be tied to the titular creature that clearly exercises a strong grip on the community’s imagination decades after their death. While this plays with some elements of horror however the focus is on creating a sense of atmosphere and a backdrop for its cleverly constructed fair play puzzle.

I particularly enjoyed the passages in which Byrnside describes the history of the supposed vampire and I felt he does a fine job of exploring the sense of hysteria building up around the idea that he might return from the dead. I appreciate that he gives us the sense that there are a range of responses with some clearly taking the threat more seriously than others.

As entertaining as the build-up to the séance can be, I feel that the events really kick up a gear once the first body is discovered as the circumstances surrounding the deaths can be bloody with some occasionally surprising touches. After the first death several others quickly follow, each impossible yet quite distinct from each other. Things move quickly and by the point you reach the Challenge to the Reader page there are enough problems to consider to enable the author to pose eight questions.

The final chapter rattles through each of the questions and does a good job of explaining the answers and the evidence that had pointed to them. For the record I only solved a couple of these myself, though I agree with the author that I jolly well ought to have been able to solve them all with the evidence I had been given! While there are a few aspects of the broader solution that would be hard to imagine a reader solving on their own, rest assured that they do not relate to the eight questions you will be judging yourself against!

That overall solution is quite clever and satisfying, doing a good job of tying up a number of aspects of the crime to provide us with a complete and mostly convincing explanation of the crime. With so many different threads to pull together, I was surprised how tidy most of it was. There is even quite a good explanation of the historical vampire incidents so Byrnside really does try to resolve every aspect of his plot and largely succeeds.

I continue to enjoy Rowan and Walter’s sometimes quite testy relationship with one another and feel that both had strong moments throughout this novel that showed their different personalities off well. Their conversation moves as quickly as the novel’s plot and helps create a lighthearted tone that contrasts with the sometimes shocking and horrific content of the case.

That inconsistency of tone may feel quite surprising to the reader and I believe it was meant to. While Byrnside’s novel shows an enormous understanding and appreciation of writers of the Golden Age and is clearly set during that time frame, he does not try to emulate that writing style (beyond a few touches like the aforementioned Challenge to the Reader). His characters are frequently coarse meaning that when a document they read needs to shock them, he has to go even further.

Similarly there is a really trippy sequence in which something happens to Rowan that feels more akin to a piece of horror writing. I found it quite effective but it definitely pulls the novel in an even darker and quite unsettling direction, at least for a chapter, and that shift does feel quite sudden.

I am less concerned however with the cutting off of a victim’s hands. That moment is certainly a violent and disturbing image but it is not described in much more detail than the decapitations were in Brand’s Heads You Lose and I think it is certainly relevant to the plot more generally and properly explained.

Overall then I am happy to report that I enjoyed this second encounter with Rowan and Walter – perhaps even more than the last. This is a really cleverly plotted and very atmospheric piece of mystery writing that does a really good job of playing with some elements of the supernatural. I had a great time reading it and if you like impossible crime stories that play with horror themes or imagery then I think you will have a great time too.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1934
First published in the United States as The Boomerang Clue

It has been a while since I last posted an installment in my attempt to read all of Agatha Christie’s non-series works. I still have several of the big titles left to read but, keen to save those for a rainy day, I am instead opting to focus my efforts on wading through some of her thrillers.

After much consideration I opted to read Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Technically this counts as a reread for me but given that I last read this in my early teen years I had little memory of the details beyond the meaning of the title and the golfing sequence that opens the book.

Bobby Jones, the vocationally-challenged fourth son of the Vicar of Marchbolt, is playing a round of golf with a friend when he hits his ball over the cliff edge. Working his way down the slope in the hope of recovering it he finds a man lying below and, fearing his errant ball is responsible, he and his golfing companion investigate. Finding that the man is dying, his friend goes off in search of help while Bobby stands guard over the body, hearing the man’s mysterious last words: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” and finding the photograph of a woman in his pocket but no papers to identify him.

After waiting for a while, Bobby remembers that he needs to go play the organ for the evening service and so when a stranger, a Roger Bassington-ffrench, offers to stand guard in his place he takes up the offer. Later, after giving evidence at the inquest, Bobby realizes that he failed to tell the victim’s family about the man’s last words and so he writes to them, setting in motion a very strange set of events. This is just the starting point for one of Christie’s more meandering and sensational adventures which also features instances of poisoning, kidnapping as well as a mysterious death in a locked room…

I was just a few chapters into the book when I listened to JJ and Brad’s podcast discussion about Agatha Christie’s locked room mysteries and I was a little surprised to find that the book did not get a particularly favorable hearing. After all, I had found those first few chapters to be really quite entertaining.

Bobby is one of Christie’s more light-hearted creations – a little as if Hastings were left to drift through an investigation without the help of his friend Poirot. He takes people at face value, seeming to drift through life, and has little instinct for investigation. Some of the things he says and the situations he puts himself in are really quite funny such as his plan to start up a business with his friend Badger where they buy junk cars, give them a lick of paint and try to resell them at a profit.

He is supported in his investigations by an old friend, Frankie, who he encounters on a train. She is, in my mind, the best thing about the book by a long way. She is far more practical than Bobby and throws herself into the investigation with little thought to her own safety, coming up with a plan to gain entry to the home of the victim’s family to snoop around and learn more about them. I found her to be easily the most likeable of the heroines I have encountered in any of the Christie thrillers to date and while Bobby could be a bit of an ass at points in the story, I did enjoy their interactions with each other.

The problems I had with the book really begin with the portion of the novel where Frankie goes undercover however as it quickly became clear to me that the story would draw on some elements I associate more with sensation fiction. There are brooding, withdrawn husbands, eerie sanitariums where there might be strange goings-on as well as a few kidnappings. It all feels very dramatic but I never felt any rush of excitement or discovery as Bobby and Frankie carried out their investigation.

There are a couple of reasons that I think this adventure left me cold. One of them is that there are several moments where characters are rescued from situations in ways that seem rather incredible (the standout example for me being a situation involving a skylight late in the novel). I think the bigger issues however lie in Christie’s development of her villain or villains.

From a very early point in the novel it seemed clear to me who the guilty party would be, not based on evidence but based on the way I felt the book was leading me. Now it is hardly unusual for Christie to attempt to make one character suspicious while hiding a killer in the background but it simply doesn’t work here. The problem is that once you look past the suspect who is made to appear guilty, there really aren’t many other credible suspects left.

The weakness of the whodunnit aspect of the story is not necessarily a problem in itself – after all, Christie wrote several perfectly serviceable thriller-type tales that didn’t really rely on trying to make the reader guess the guilty party’s identity. The problem here is that this is that the narrative is structured to make that the focus, even though the questions of why the victim was killed and the meaning of those strange last words are far more interesting.

Though I am no great fan of dying words mysteries, the question of what is meant by “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” is wonderfully handled, playing fair with the reader. That is no doubt one of the reasons the explanation remained so clear in my mind even though almost twenty years had passed since I last read it. The meaning is simple but very clever as all Christie’s best puzzles are.

This presents me with a bit of a problem when it comes to assessing how I feel about the book. The book is certainly worth reading for that aspect of its solution alone but the journey to that point feels pretty uninspiring and far from Christie at her best, particularly if you don’t warm to Bobby or Frankie the way I did (based on some of the comments I have read it seems that Bobby is an acquired taste).

To put it in the context of Christie’s other thrillers I have read, it is far better than Passenger to Frankfurt but I would pick either Destination Unknown or The Man in the Brown Suit over this as I found each of those titles to be more entertaining.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Comic/humorous novel (What)

Speak of the Devil by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Speak of the Devil
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally Published 1941

Speak of the Devil is the third novella I have read by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and, I am happy to say, it did not disappoint. In fact I am increasingly struck by the idea that Holding may be becoming one of my favorite writers. Certainly I think her work deserves far more recognition than it seems to get.

This story is narrated by a Miss Peterson, a young woman who is travelled aboard a ship to Cuba to start a new life in the Caribbean. While on board she meets the charming Mr. Fernandez who persuades her that she should travel with him to the island of Riquezas to be the hostess at a new hotel he is opening. She is hesitant but he tells her that he will grant her the job on a trial basis and if she is unhappy with it (or his conduct toward her) she can leave with no questions asked.

Shortly after she arrives at the hotel Cecily, a woman with her own mysterious past who was her predecessor as hostess, comes to her to say that she killed a man in self-defense. While Miss Peterson does not believe Cecily’s story, she is puzzled by Mr. Fernandez’s unwillingness to contact the Police but things become even more confusing when the body is found.

And then there is the locals’ talk that the Devil himself was seen roaming the halls of the hotel…

One of the things I have come to appreciate most in Holding’s work is her ability to create a sense of uncertainty both in her characters and for her readers. Both of the stories I previously reviewed featured narrators who seem at odds with the world around them, appearing increasingly unhinged as they become more certain of a danger that only they see.

Speak of the Devil also features a protagonist who is experiencing events somewhat differently than those around them but it reverses that dynamic. Miss Peterson is clear-headed, calm and rational in the face of what seems to be chaos or possibly even supernatural events. There is still a tension between her and the characters around her as she seems to be the only person who cares about the idea of discovering the truth. The difference is that the reader can have more faith in Miss Peterson’s accounts of events as she is clearly identified as the voice of sanity and reason from the start of the story.

While those other stories I have read featured mundane settings in which a character claims extraordinary things are happening, here Holding presents us with a rich, exotic locale that feels atmospheric and full of danger.

Sometimes atmosphere can be a substitute for depth of theme or an interesting crime but I think this story really springs out of the unsettling feelings that Holding is able to create. The hotel may not be a small building but it becomes claustrophobic and threatening at times, in part because so much of it remains unoccupied. I may not have taken the idea of a supernatural explanation seriously (and I do not think we are really meant to) but I could certainly imagine someone malevolent roaming the halls.

Holding creates some really striking imagery, particularly in relation to the Devil of the title. This idea manifests itself in several ways in the novella and, at times, quite unexpectedly. For instance there is a moment in which the Devil is described by the locals that plays contrary to more familiar American or European ideas. Those moments never feel obvious and I think that they really help enrich this story and build tension at some key points in the narrative.

While the short page count does mean that the narrative is quite compressed, Holding’s supporting characters feel surprisingly well-developed though some information must be inferred rather than directly stated. Mr. Fernandez is probably the most vibrant creation, speaking with a precision and formality that says an enormous amount about his character. I think however that the smaller characters such as Cecily and Mrs Fish are even more interesting because of how much of their characters and histories are initially hidden, being teased out over the course of the story.

The exploration of these characters and their stories is fascinating and I felt Holding constructs a really engaging story around them. Though her work tends to be described as suspense fiction, there is a mystery for the reader to solve, though I failed to reach deduce it myself. I found the explanation, when given, to be satisfying and inventive and I was thrilled by the final chapters which feel full of tension.

Is it perfect? Not quite – Holding’s prose is often very accomplished but I find her occasional slides between third and first person narration to be a little awkward. I feel like I am quibbling though because this is not unique to this book and in fact this happens far more rarely than in her other works I have read so far.

The only other negative I can offer is that this is a less challenging work than some of the others I have previously read by Holding. In some ways though I think that may have been to this story’s benefit as it also feels more cohesive with a more intricate plot and clearer development of narrative themes. For that reason, while I would say that Lady Killer is a more exciting and inventive read, Speak of the Devil may be a more accessible starting point for readers who are new to her work. Both, however, are thoroughly recommended.

Further Reading

As with many of Holding’s works, I was only able to find a couple of reviews online. One is part of a discussion of a double-header publication featuring this and The Obstinate Murderer on Tipping My Fedora.

The other is John Grant’s Goodreads review. While John notes that he wrote his review in haste, he makes an excellent point about the characterization of Miss Peterson (and Holding’s choice not to give us all of the details) that I absolutely agree with.

November 2018 in Review

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It is hard to believe that we are already several days into December. I am afraid I have fallen behind the schedule I set for myself this past week, missing out on the final review I promised (it should be up tomorrow, all being well) and being several days late on making my Book of the Month selection.

Hopefully I will make up for it this month which, if I stick to my plans, ought to be pretty packed. There are several newly published mysteries that I am hoping to get to this month as well as a big stack of festive mysteries I hope to read this year. And then I will also be writing a couple of posts nominating titles for Reprint of the Year awards being organized by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. I am excited to share my thoughts with you all about that.

Anyway, enough looking forward – it’s time to look back at November. The titles I reviewed last month were:

A Moment in Crime by Amanda Allen
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers
The Case of Sir Adam Braid by Molly Thynne
A Javelin for Jonah by Gladys Mitchell
The Inverted Crime by Leonard Gribble
The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes
A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill
The Religious Body by Catherine Aird
A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes

Looking at that list I feel pretty satisfied with my month’s reading in terms of quality, if not quantity. Several authors in that group who were completely new to me – Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy B. Hughes, Catherine Aird, Jim Thompson and Annie Haynes – and several more were writers I hadn’t read recently. Given one of my goals for this year is to read a little more widely I think I am already off to a solid start.

The other reason that the list above pleases me is that I really enjoyed reading a lot of those titles. Take the pair of charming historical mysteries, Sulari Gentill’s A Decline in Prophets and Amanda Allen’s A Moment in Crime. Each of those titles deliver interesting settings and memorable murders and I would happily recommend both.

I can only select one title as the recipient of November’s Book of the Month award. While there was some stiff competition from several titles, it ended up coming down to the two inverted crime stories I read back-to-back toward the end of the month. Each of those books featured memorable criminals and moments of dark humor. To be honest, both are excellent reads and I would gladly recommend either.

RendellRuth Rendell’s A Demon in My View is based on the simple but interesting premise that a neurotic serial killer finds that a man with a very similar name to his own moves into his block of flats. The novel explores his psychology and the ways it is affected by being unsettled by this coincidence. It is an often quite dark and unsettling read, featuring some excellent characterization. What really sticks with me is how well constructed this novel is with the ending feeling like a powerful and logical culmination of everything that has come before.

It is a splendid read and my first really satisfying encounter with Rendell. Given I have a big stack of them now in my TBR pile, I will look forward to getting back to her soon.

Acquisitions

In addition to the Ruth Rendell titles, I also picked up a number festive mystery novels and vintage reprints. The book I am most excited to read though is Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen – a vintage collection of short stories from Japanese crime writers including a blog favorite Masako Togawa. I am not sure I will be able to fit it in this month but if not expect to see thoughts on the collection early in the New Year.