Goodnight Irene

Spoiler musings on Goodnight Irene

I’ll do my best to review one book a week. I tend not to read while I’m writing. That’s probably not good for my development. Now, I can’t reasonably review my own book, so this first post will simply be a list of thoughts I had while reading it again. If you have not read Goodnight Irene, you shouldn’t read this post. Also, you should read Goodnight Irene.


  1. This was a terrible mistake. I love sins of the past looming in the background, and I just couldn’t help myself. When I republished with a new cover, I considered eliminating the prologue, but it’s what I published at the time, so I kept it.
  2. Because the prologue starts 20 years prior to the story proper, I tried to write with a different style. It’s far more descriptive (flowery) than the later chapters.
  3. I wanted to strike an ominous note with the crime remaining quite vague. The crime is not one typically offered in these kinds of stories because it’s so disturbing. I used it because I needed Lasciva to be the worst of the worst.
  4. I was able to introduce two of our characters — Alice Schmidt and Jack Tellum. The one clue we get that pops up later is that Tellum was bitten on the thumb. The fact that Irene/Ruth suffers from dermatophagia was obvious to me and yet no one picked up on it.
  5. Dorothy’s walk down the hallway became severely truncated. I love mirroring scenes, and this was to mirror Rowan’s walk in the passage in chapter 13.
  6. Overall, this prologue was completely unnecessary. All of the information you get from it is provided later on. In The Opening Night Murders, I toyed with using a prologue as a quick glimpse to an earlier crime, but Goodnight Irene’s prologue left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t do it. I’ll probably never write a prologue again.

Chapter 1

  1. I’m very happy with this chapter. Originally, this was the hypnosis scene, but a beta reader suggested showing the horrible event at the Brent house. Having written the rest of the book first, this was a breeze. It took one day and I barely had to do any editing. I knew the characters well at this point.
  2. The trick with the clock is an overused technique. This was to my advantage. It placed Manory in the company of those old detectives without disappointing any readers. I used it early on in order to demonstrate his intelligence. I would never use it as the main impossibility.
  3. These are Chicago detectives. I’m from Chicago. How could the Cubs not be involved. Riggs Stevenson was a great hitter who couldn’t field. And Riggs was a tractor company started in 1927.
  4. “Yes, the woman who had two legs.” Williams may be the comic foil, but I wanted Manory to have his own unique sense of humor.
  5. I was watching an episode of Poirot (can’t remember the story it was based on) Poirot did his usual summation at the end with all the suspects present. When he revealed the criminal, the man pulled out a gun and shot a woman. The police took him away and Poirot…had no fucking reaction! He wasn’t even sorry. I couldn’t believe it. He could have just told the police to grab that guy, but he had to do the grandstanding detective thing, and an innocent woman was killed. That gave me the idea for the ending of this chapter. Manory is devastated by his error. Not that he gives up the tradition of gathering the suspects and summarizing everything. 🙂

Chapter 2

  1. Although I’m quite fond of the hypnosis scene, we begin to encounter a major problem. Goodnight Irene takes far too long to get into the hook. It’s a mistake I’ll never make again. The Opening Night Murders gives us the hook in Chapter 1 (with no prologue). At times, I like the structure of Irene. It’s…uniquely odd. But I have a feeling a lot of people have stopped reading the book at this point. Irene is a locked-room murder mystery and I should have directed it toward that event from the start. Lesson learned.
  2. I got the spinning top trick from a hypnosis video on youtube.
  3. Prisoner of the Past was an early title. I tried a few different ones because three beta readers reminded me that a whodunit should not have the killer’s name in the title. I always went back to Goodnight Irene. It works in a poetic kind of way.
  4. I wrote a scene at the bar before I remembered this was during prohibition. A little research turned up the delightful practice of bribing doctors for alcohol prescriptions. I loved it.
  5. Dave Bowen is the astronaut from 2001. Names come from different places. I often use a Latin translator. Sometimes the name is used for its relation to other words. Lasciva – lascivious, Tellum – tell em, Manory — manor…he’s stately.

Chapter 3

  1. Grady is my American translation of Inspector Cockrill. They look the same in my head.
  2. Irene’s death is hinted at in this chapter. Her eventual reappearance was inspired by a story I read about a missing German woman. A serial killer took credit for her murder and she was able to move away and live a secret life. Someone broke into her home and while investigating, the police discovered her true identity.
  3. I wanted to get a good look at Alice so when Bernice shows up, the reader (and Manory) would be baffled. It’s a great clue because it almost appears like an author failing to be profound. Nope. Perfectly reasonable explanation. Irene modeled Bernice after Alice. I prefer these kinds of clues to, say, physical evidence found at a murder scene.

Chapter 4

  1. I feel like this is where the story should have started. It’s an ominous enough beginning. In fact, this is the first scene I wrote. Go with your gut.
  2. I researched the flood and listed as many adjectives and images of water as I could. If I was going to use this event, I had to make the weather a character. I hate it when storms become deus-ex-machina devices. By investing so much into the weather, I felt like I earned the right to use it to isolate and batter the characters. It’s also a handy metaphor for the madness that ensues.
  3. Ain’t She Sweet is Walter’s tune. It suits his personality.
  4. “We are too late for the dinner, but perhaps we are not too late for the murder.” Now we can have some fun. It only took 64 pages!

Chapter 5

  1. Here we come to a vital chapter in the book. I have one shot to introduce all the suspects and make you feel the way I want you to feel about them. So…
  2. We need to think Jack Tellum is capable of anything at any time. Easy enough. We also use him twice to establish Bernice as a flesh and blood human being. Finally, we need to make Tellum and Lasciva seem like the aggressors. I love making murderers into victims and vice versa. Even canny readers make quick judgments about characters. The death threat to Lasciva is obviously bullshit, but then he’s murdered. You were wrong, reader. But actually you were right. But, no, you were wrong about being right. Kind of. — That’s a fun game to play.
  3. Charles and Margaret are plotting, but we are misled as to the nature of the plot. I really wanted her to seem like a strong character. If a reader did guess that Irene was committing the murders, they could still suspect Margaret.
  4. Charles doesn’t know what it means to “take the piss” This is an obvious clue that doesn’t get picked up because he is naturally flustered. We assume he doesn’t know how to communicate with these people.
  5. We need to see Daniels drink and we need to know he’s impatient for things to begin.
  6. I set Ruth in an ominous pose to invite suspicion. You can’t have the killer always free of suspicion.
  7. I falsely set Aikes up as the poisoner a little too much. But honestly, so much false cluing is going on that I figured the reader had to accept anything as a possibility.
  8. The jump cut that ends this chapter is done without a page break. Charles and Margaret are on the porch, Tellum and Daniels in the library, Ruth in the billiard room. When i cut to the car coming to the drive, Tellum, Charles, and Margaret are in the library. Ruth and Daniels are on the porch. Rowan later assumes it was Margaret and Charles, but then realizes Ruth wasn’t in the billiard room window. It turns out to be a big clue. A simple narrative trick. Is this cheating? Maybe.

Chapter 6

  1. It was necessary at this point to enter the realm of the detective. I switched almost exclusively to Rowan’s inner monologue and the things he could pick up from initial observation such as determining Charles and Margaret’s relationship in a few seconds.
  2. I had a problem here – no Bernice. Solution — readers will believe anything if more than one person says it. Of course, this is not collusion. Willie believes Bernice is real and later, Margaret and Charles will confirm it in good faith as well. Manory is suspicious of her, but how could he go with his gut after so much contrary evidence?
  3. The panther piss is brought up a second time, leading us to believe it will be important. It’s also fun to say/read.
  4. Daniels’ face is described as ‘flush.’ That’s a fair enough way to give the clue without linking it directly to the slap we saw earlier in silhouette.

Chapter 7

  1. I often use film actors as models or at least partial models for characters. Lasciva is John Cassavetes circa 1984. He’s got that poisoned, lopsided smile along with the cancerous stomach.
  2. I had to lay out the dimensions of the room and the fact that it is sealed.
  3. I love Lasciva’s line about locking people in a room with a suit of armor so they know he means business.
  4. Manory has to see Charles’s picture and have a thought somewhere in his brain that it’s strange. A lot of ideas brew in the back of Manory’s mind, out of focus but still nagging at him.
  5. A huge clue is Lasciva’s shock at the nursery rhyme. He had no idea as to its meaning. The detail of asking Ruth who added it was put in last minute. I had painted myself in a corner — when Lasciva finds out the rhyme’s significance, he would naturally be suspicious. Luckily, it seems like the kind of sick joke Tellum would make. I squeezed it into the scene by focusing on Rowan’s meager lip-reading abilities. Later I added a quick line to the summation. When you have thought your story through enough times, the quick fixes don’t appear to be paper over the cracks, but rather ingrained elements. I could swear I added an additional line where Lasciva tells Tellum, “Real funny, Jack.” But now it isn’t there. What the hell, James?
  6. I could have been more subtle about the gum at the end of the scene. Maybe had Daniels shove a stick in his mouth. I was honestly just thinking about how much gum would be needed to cover that keyhole. It was silly. Authors worry about stuff readers don’t care about. The things that readers do care about? It just flies by our heads. We are clueless.

Chapter 8

  1. The painting was actually very important. Besides mirroring Lasciva’s decapitation it suggests a slight madness overtaking Manory. Consider: A. He sees the near-spitting image of a woman he met days earlier in Chicago. B. This picture that caused him nightmares as a child is hanging in the manor. C. A dead girl is sending messages to her abuser. Those are a lot of potential markers for insanity. I wanted Goodnight Irene to have that feel more and more as the night went on.
  2. I had the boring task of laying out the house. (The previous chapter managed to describe the geography of the creek.) Info dumping is the kind of stuff that takes me months to do. I don’t think this reads too painful. It helps that the chapter title is Murder. Readers will stick around when they know someone is about to die.
  3. The dimensions are a clue. I loved that the secret passage is on the wrong side of the house. The way it ends up being presented was well-hidden. Readers weren’t able to process the obvious fact that Ruth could use it to get to the office because they were thinking about Bernice.

4. How silly is it to have a character talk with herself in two different voices? Very. Did everyone buy it? Amazingly, yes! I can’t believe how gullible readers are. (Note: I am fooled by 99% of detective fiction)

5. I came up with Laciva’s entire plot, but downplayed the Murder during a murder mystery theatre idea. Occasionally, I had to play it lip service though. Lasciva would have to make Manory curious about finding something hidden in the Manor. That’s why Bernice/Ruth has the line about finding something. Of course, I had to plot how the hand-written notes would play out in reality. The combination of those messages and the actual events led to some good moments.

6. I’m an ESL teacher in real life. After a lesson on voiced and unvoiced consonants, the dying message occurred to me. Now, would Tellum actually refer to an elaborate murder/revenge plot as a joke? Maybe not, but he would have a sick sense of humor. And it was just too delicious to pass up. Most dying messages (scrawling something in blood, grabbing some object with some obscure meaning) suck. This one worked naturally.

7. I love that Manory points to his headless client when he reveals his job. No matter how cool and collected he seems, there is an element of the bumbling detective in him. It comes out at the worst times.

Overall, I think this is a solid presentation of a locked room impossibility. There are some crap lines—”Look in the keyhole”—and it took too long to get here, but it works.

Chapter 9

  1. My favorite chapter, and I believe the favorite chapter of anyone who loves detective fiction. This discussion of locked rooms has been done to death, but not with this much personality. The characters make it work.
  2. Besides deepening the mystery, it is hands down the funniest chapter. “Monkeys?” “Did you do it Manory?” “So did that.” “…by the grace of God, they match.” “Do you speak German? No. Good.” “Am I doing the interviews?”
  3. Daniels calls Charles Chuck. Although he knows of the couple’s deception, he doesn’t know Charles’s real name. We think he’s just belittling him by using the more common form of the name. He turns out to be correct.

Chapter 10

  1. The interview is quickly becoming my least favorite to write. I liked the way I ended up doing it in The Opening Night Murders, but it took a long time to bury it within the narrative in a way that satisfied me. In Goodnight Irene, it is a separate chapter, detached from the narrative proper. It feels a bit hollow to me.
  2. Rowan loves to prod. Nothing pleases him more than making a suspect nervous. He clearly likes Ruth, but that last line about the gum is meant to disturb her.
  3. He knows from her dialogue that she was the one smacking someone on the porch.
  4. The magician angle is a brief red herring, but a surprisingly effective one. Especially for readers who aren’t versed in detective fiction. All my beta readers commented on it. Weird.
  5. Ruth latches onto Rowan’s suggestion of an affair. Quick, thoughtless lies always end up burning us. This happens when she makes a false comment after Manory brings up Lasciva’s scar.
  6. Charles’s line about Daniels drinking after taking the piss is too obvious. I wanted Rowan to know, but I should have handled it better.
  7. The pearls, on the other hand, are a fantastic clue. No one would deduce it, but Rowan makes such a big deal out of them that they must be a clue.
  8. He asks her if she had ever been in the theater. This is something that comes to his mind right at that moment. Even with the constant confirmation of Bernice, something tells him the old woman may have been a creation. It helps that Margaret is gone when Bernice appears.
  9. Willie is the only honest suspect, and Manory treats him like shit. I like that.
  10. The antifreeze isn’t a well-hidden clue, but I liked the fact that Southerners didn’t use it at the time. Eventually, it was discovered that using water would damage the engine, but no one knew it in 1927. That gave me Rowan’s final line. “Hot.”
  11. Daniels has a moment to shine here. I like his back and forth with Manory, especially the call-back of etiquette.

Chapter 11.

  1. Action is difficult and this chapter is filled with it. It’s a bit hit or miss.
  2. I like Walter’s inner monologue about a killer shopping for Christmas cards and such.
  3. I’m sadistic with Manory. I make this case physically and mentally difficult.
  4. The red raincoat was inspired by Don’t Look Now and the detectives watching bags dumped into the river was inspired by The Red House Mystery.
  5. We trust Walter so we believe it was Daniels (also later when Ruth says it).
  6. It is a bit unrealistic that Manory and Williams would be able to see candlelight flickering from where they are. I didn’t care. I loved that final line.

Chapter 12

  1. “It makes things more difficult if it was Daniels.” How smart is this fucking guy! Sometimes.
  2. I love that Walter makes Rowan laugh with a broken nose. It reminds me of a kid who makes his friends shoot chocolate milk out of his nose.
  3. It’s not my favorite chapter, but we get to the secret passage. We also see that Willie is the only one in the house. Talk about a wide net of suspicion.

Chapter 13

  1. The passage walk. It’s probably the most atmospheric scene in the book. Maybe the creepiest too.
  2. I wanted to use the phonograph more. Perhaps have Irene use it to cause a distraction. It ended up being a very minor prop.

Chapter 14

  1. The landslide had to be massive. I think some readers were surprised by how far I took it.
  2. The dream sequence. Manory does not figure out the trick Irene played with Daniels’s head from the dream. It is a solution in the back of his mind that comes to the fore during his dream. I used a dream because I had this image of a spider monkey holding up a talking head. Not sure it works. It’s surreal and the real-life situation has become surreal. I took a chance.

Chapter 15

  1. I like the early morning, peaceful conversation between Rowan and Walter. The fact that the killer is so close to them makes it even better.
  2. Charles confesses and effectively removes himself and Margaret from the suspect list. I could have saved this for the summation. Perhaps listed all the ways they could have done it and then revealed the truth. It comes off half-assed. A bad mistake.
  3. The weather copies Rowan from here on out. I think it was done subtly enough.
  4. Rowan repeats the ending of chapter 1. The reader doesn’t need to hear this. I won’t do it again.

Chapter 16

  1. Now, we finally come to something I’m really good at. The summation is nothing but dialogue and grand theatrics. I can do this in my sleep.
  2. I wanted Manory to be factually correct but morally wrong. He is unable to do the right thing and let Irene go. Sort of like if Poirot told everyone on the Orient Express to go fuck themselves.

Chapter 17

  1. I was surprised by how many people liked this chapter. I had actually considered ending things on top of that ridge.
  2. I love that Williams enjoys speaking with operators. I imagine him talking with one for twenty minutes and then forgetting whom he was calling.
  3. The ending moments aren’t bad. I’ve written lots of worse stuff. It’s low-key enough and it ends where it started—with Alice asking about Irene.

The good: It’s a fun, inventive murder mystery with likable detectives and some good problems/solutions. The setting is effective.

The bad: It’s got structural problems, and some of the clues could have been handled better. If I did this story again, the murder would be in Chapter 4.

My next book is a huge improvement. It’s far more measured, better written, and a lot smarter. Best of all, its only focus is the problem it presents. The Opening Night Murders comes out June 3rd.

Next week, I’ll post some observations of The Case of the Constant Suicides.

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