Goodnight Irene – James Scott Byrnside (2018)

It’s rare that I finish a book in a single day.  Oh, it happens from time to time, but typically because I’m on a business trip – with the time at the terminal, the time on the plane, and the night at the hotel affording me the chance to put in a solid block of reading.  I read Goodnight Irene like it was nothing.  If you asked me what I did the day I read it, I’d hardly mention reading, as I was out and about enjoying the holidays: a rare breakfast out alone with my wife, some late shopping for those last minute gifts that feel suddenly necessary, some chores around the house.  But tucked in there, I somehow stole enough moments with this book to burn through 248 pages.  And let me tell you, as the page count dropped to the final forty or so, there was no way that I wasn’t finishing it.

Take Zelda Popkin’s flub of a book Dead Man’s Gift and pretend that it lived up to every last bit of promise: a swollen Mississippi River encroaching on the holdout contenders for a deadman’s will; said deadman offed under impossible circumstances; an unfathomable fire within the deluge just when you think things couldn’t get worse.  Mix in some creeping horror a la Hake Talbot, the pell mell energy of the second half of Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way, and the ambitious bravado of Paul Halter.  Yes, Goodnight Irene is a hell of a read.

I’ve been collecting James Scott Byrnside’s novels for the past few years, but I haven’t gotten around to reading any of them yet.  Based on some trusted reviewers whose tastes I tend to share, I had a strong feeling the author was going to give me exactly what I wanted – a Locked Room International novel on speed.  But Byrnside is actively publishing and I’m not really reading anything modern aside from Paul Halter, and most of Halter’s books are really 20-30 years old.  There was a bit of fear as to whether a current author can deliver the type of Golden Age mystery that I’m looking for.

Well, it was an unfounded fear as you can sense from above.  Plus Byrnside sets Goodnight Irene back in 1927, which is a stitch earlier than most of what I read, but puts us in the time range that I enjoy.  It’s a fair play Golden Age novel in spirit, although the writing style takes a more modern and ironic form: our detective isn’t just there to detect, he is very much part of the plot; an early scene establishes our detective’s prowess by showing him solve a case, rather than us just accepting his reputation; there’s a fair amount of sass in the dialogue that you’re not going to see in a book published in the 1930s; and there’s a grimness to it all that feels more at home in the last three decades.

“I have to assume he locked it.  It was locked when we tried to enter.”

“Assume is a dirty word.”

“What word should I use?”

“Asses assume.  Detectives deduce.”

“All right, I deduce he locked the door.”

Byrnside sets a fierce pace from the start, providing a handful of deaths before we even get to the core plot.  The main story involves shell shocked detective Rowan Manory, who is invited down to Mississippi at the request of a wealthy ex-gangster who has received a threatening letter.  Manory is tasked with shaking out the would be killer before they have a chance to strike; a task he fails at when the gangster is found decapitated within a thoroughly locked room.

There’s more though.  The house in which the murder takes place is surrounded by a swollen Mississippi River, and a torrent of rain is causing the water to rise by the hour.  A small cast of suspects / potential victims is trapped by the flood and face a race to discover the killer before more of them are picked off.

I love rain in a mystery novel, particularly when it is a violent storm.  Byrnside can write a downpour as good as the best of them, putting Goodnight Irene on par with Theodore Roscoe’s Murder On the Way when it comes to rain-soaked mayhem.  And it is mayhem once the murders start, with bodies stacking up under baffling circumstances.

Byrnside provides a solid explanation to it all, and there’s misdirection upon misdirection of the likes that that few authors other than Carr and Halter can provide.  The solution to the core locked room mystery had me kicking myself, as I’ve seen it a few times before, although in somewhat obscure books.  That the cornerstone to the misdirection passed right before my eyes without me noticing it has me questioning my sanity, but there’s nothing better than a surprise revelation.

I’m stoked that there’s another three Byrnside novels out there, plus one on the way.  I’ll probably keep them stashed away for when I need a jolt after a dud read.  As things are, I’m on a streak of fun reads: Paul Halter’s The Man Who Loved Clouds, Goodnight Irene, and a Locked Room International book coming next.  Sometimes you just have to treat yourself.

One thought on “Goodnight Irene – James Scott Byrnside (2018)”

  1. You’re in for an absolute treat! Byrnside improves with each succeeding novel and the next one, The Opening Night Murders, has some of that plotting ingenuity we associate with the Japanese shin honkaku mysteries. I agree with Jim that The Strange Case of the Barrington Hill Vampire is his most accomplished mystery to date and The 5 False Suicides pretty much does as says on tin (a standalone, crazy-ass piece of pulp dedicated to Fredric Brown). Enjoy these first rays of the dawn of a Second Golden Age!

    Liked by 1 person

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