I hate to start the new year with a sad fact, but reading, and the enjoyment thereof, has become a rare commodity. When I taught high school, I was disheartened by how few of my students carried around a book for pleasure. Maybe it’s the solitary nature of reading, or the lack of bells-and-whistles flummery that it holds in this high-tech world, but sometimes I look around in the cafes (with people on their phones) or libraries (where the computer banks are filled with people but the bookshelves? Crickets!), and I wonder if reading has become a nearly lost art.
The good news, to which I can attest based on the community I have found here and in blogs and forums where I roam, is that those of us who do read are crazy about it! It’s the aftermath of reading a book that can be challenging, for many of us don’t simply want to put down one book with a contented sigh and take up the next! (No dig against those who want to do exactly that!) Rather, we want to share with others all that we loved, or hated, learned and/or thought about a book. That’s why book clubs have sprung up in every community on this slightly scorched emerald planet. It’s why folks clamor to attend literary festivals and Bouchercons and Bodies From the Library, where they can shed their natural shyness and engage in a joyful exchange of ideas and opinions.
Although I sometimes crack wise about it, my Book Club means everything to me. We are a half dozen or so folks who share a lifelong love of mysteries, even as our opinions illustrate (sometimes loudly) how varied and fascinating a genre it is. Every month, I get on The Zoom and behold this assemblage of kind and eager faces, and I know how patiently they will wait when I start to jabber (and lord, how I jabber!) and how enjoyable our give and take will be over the next couple of hours. That’s because we all really know the ins and outs of this Golden Age of Detection, and our chats take on a vibrant meta-quality that only a true mystery nerd can appreciate.
I envy the Japanese, who seem to have built a love of GAD right into their education system in the form of university clubs that provide a springboard for new generations of mystery lovers and many a future author. And because the Japanese can get as deeply meta as the rest of us, many of the shin honkaku mysteries we enjoy, like The Decagon House Murders and Death Among the Undead, revolve around a university murder mystery club whose members are so well-steeped in the tropes of their preferred mode of fiction that it serves as the perfect lure to get them to some remote place where they can stop reading and start sleuthing . . . and dying in droves.
I know, I know! This build-up has reached endurance levels. But it’s relevant precisely because the whole concept of book clubs and meta-fiction is the best thing about James Scott Byrnside’s latest novel The 5 False Suicides. This is Byrnside’s fourth work and the first not to feature the Golden Age team of detective Rowan Manory and his assistant Walter Williams. This time around we have a shy young librarian named Gretta Graeme who, on the advice of her psychiatrist, has formed a mystery reading club that meets every week on the stage of a small theatre in New Sweden, Maine that is owned by her dear friend and fellow club member Georgie, an aging actor. There, Gretta, Georgie, and their pals discuss the books they read and the crime story tropes they love (or love to hate). For instance, they hate when a murder is disguised as a supernatural event because, after all, there are no such things as ghosts or witches . . . at least, there shouldn’t be if you want your mystery to be solved through logical means. And they don’t approve when an author announces a person has committed suicide because – where’s the fun in that? (As I myself have written about before, fans agree that it has to be murder.)
Here is where Byrnside, lover of John Dickson Carr and Christianna Brand, has his fun: the book club discusses their disdain for fake suicides and witches just before they are plunged into a case involving these very things. For it seems Gretta’s family has been put under a curse, one that has caused more than a dozen members to off themselves and now threatens the life of its last living member: Gretta herself. And now Gretta has asked the members of her book club to help her follow the advice of the witch – yup! The Witch!! – who helped her ancestor cast the evil spell and now has had a change of heart and has given Gretta the instructions for lifting the curse. In order to do that, the book club must travel to a remote island off the coast of Maine. And when in classic mystery fiction has that gone well?
Byrnside is still clearly channeling his love of Brand (the last sentence of Chapter One is pure Christianna) and Carr, whose presence is felt in the title and in every impossible aspect of this tale. But the author has spread his wings as well, with a touch of Christie in the setting (sprinkled with a little Hake Talbot) and even some of that honkaku spirit I mentioned above, as well as plenty of Byrnside’s clear love of pulp violence and noirish nightmare. (He does dedicate the book to the memory of the great Fredric Brown.) Believe me, there’s room here for all these influences for, in eighteen fast-paced chapters, the plot of Suicides is stuffed to the rafters and beyond with twists and turns and lots and lots of deaths.
It’s always intriguing to see what an author will do when he or she decides to change course. Christie had her thrillers and Mary Westmacott, Brand her Nurse Matilda and romances, and Carr his historical mysteries. And despite the fact that I love neither Christie’s thrillers, Carr’s histories, nor that weird Mary Poppins wannabe of Brand’s, I knew from the start that young Byrnside was a restless soul, easily bored at writing the same thing. (That twist in Book Two still rankles, my friend . . . ) So why not branch out and do a new series or a standalone, and let’s see what happens.
There’s plenty of cleverness and creativity to enjoy this time around, but something is lacking for me, and I think it revolves primarily around the issue of character. By all means, those of us who read Golden Age mysteries (or those styled in that manner) have had it hammered into us in mysteries the emphasis will be on plot, that characters are stick-figure pawns at the mercy of the puzzle. Of course, that’s not completely true: classic authors wrote some good characters into their works, not least of which was that fabulous creation, The Great Detective. I may not recall any of the denizens of the Khalkis household in The Greek Coffin Mystery, but I clearly remember Ellery Queen presiding over that coffee set. I remember Sir Henry Merrivale riding a wheelchair in She Died a Lady and Hercule Poirot when – hell, this is me, folks – I remember everyone in Agatha Christie’s novels.
The interaction between Manory and Williams in Byrnside’s previous work has been a highpoint of my reading. Even so, his suspect list in those earlier novels was quite rich, certainly rich enough that we cared about what happened to them. In Suicides, we have a cast of characters, most of whom are doomed to die (not really a spoiler: check the title and that last sentence at the end of Chapter One), and it’s hard to really care because we barely get to know them. In fact, if we suddenly receive a spurt of exposition about their past, it’s almost a sure sign that they’re about to expire – or haveexpired offstage. The many deaths come at such a rapid clip that we seem to have missed them and find ourselves starting a chapter in the aftermath of a murder that happened in the space between chapters. It can make for a disjointed read, although it’s always an entertaining one.
My other complaint is that the book itself, which is beautifully designed with a gorgeous cover and mapback back cover by Mr. Byrnside’s friend Matt, also contains an egregious number of errors, including a few instances where one character is given the wrong name, a rotten thing to do to those of us who like to play armchair detective and find meaning in everything!! I have no idea about the perils of self-publishing – I am currently reading a friend’s new novel on Kindle where the title and author at the top of each page is different from the actual title and writer’s name. All I can say is the constant grammatical hiccups and name confusions proved really distracting here.
Byrnside himself has said that this outing is “not detective fiction, but it will hopefully read just like it.” I get what he’s saying and I will go one step further to say that if this differentiation worries you, there are still a good number of clever clues and some first-rate twists to be found. Are they all logical or well-earned? Of that, I am not sure. I think if you can lay aside the expectation for a logic-based puzzle and take this as more of a Theodore Roscoe-inspired Wonderland of madness, mixed with a few good twists of the impossible crime variety, all doused with Byrnside’s trademark milkshake of humor and gore, including an ending that would fit in just fine in the final panels of an issue of Tales from the Crypt, then this will be right up your alley.
What can I say? I had a good time, I felt a little doubtful here and there, and I hate to say this, Byrnside, but I missed Rowan Manory and Walter Williams. But I hear you’re cooking up a set of stories about that great detective for our next outing. I assure you I’ll be there with bloody bells on!