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.

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.