The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire by James Scott Byrnside
Originally published 2020
Rowan Mallory #3
Note: though this is the third novel published in the series, it is set before the other two.
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?
“A vampire, Lon Chaney here at the wheel, and snow tornados – man alive, what have you gotten us into?”
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.
The Verdict: A complex and ingeniously plotted novel featuring multiple cunning impossibilities to solve.