The Opening Night Murders

Review of The Opening Night Murders by Gabriele Crescenzi

Gabriele Crescenzi is a detective-fiction enthusiast from Italy. You can find his reviews here: Unfortunately for anglophones, his reviews are in Italian. He was kind enough to translate a review of my second book, The Opening Night Murders, and send it to me.

Obviously, I appreciate the review because it’s positive, but the expression is beautiful, and he manages to put disorganized thoughts I’ve had into words. “…focusing the reader’s attention on a minor particular that increases the perversity of the crime.” Those are words to live by! Anyway, enjoy…

“James Scott Byrnside is an American contemporary mystery author who professes a weakness for impossible crimes and locked room murders. As such, he can’t help but draw my attention, as avid a miraculous-situations mystery reader as I am.

Some time ago, I read his debut novel, “Goodnight Irene”, an extraordinary detective story with a delightful locked room and growing tension, which demonstrated a certain narrative skill of the author despite being his first attempt in the complex and multi-faceted detective-fiction world.

Therefore, having definitely appreciated the author’s style and his ability to construct complex enigmas, I decided to purchase his second novel, “The Opening Night Murders”.

The Opening Night Murders is a very articulate book, undoubtedly more structured when compared to his previous novel, and with a plot that captivates and flows feverishly, an indisputable sign of a great narrative skill. I foresee a bright future for Byrnside, who, going forward on the impervious path of detective novels, shows that the genre is still far from having run out its creativity.

The novel is the sequel of “Goodnight Irene”, set 8 years after the facts narrated in the previous investigative adventure: we’re in 1935, in Chicago, a city in which the crime seems to have found a cozy residence.

The private investigator, Rowan Manory, assisted by the amiable and Watsonian Walter Williams, is in his office in total idleness. He’s different from the Manory of GI: he looks older, his hands tremble so much that it’s difficult for him even to roll a cigarette. Has even his investigative acumen been affected by the tyrant time?

Such a question will find soon an answer, because the fascinating stage actress Lisa Pluviam shows up in his office, demanding the gruff detective’s services for a matter that has quite upset her.

Manory, susceptible to female charms and definitely attracted by her sensuality, listens intently to her case: Lisa Pluvium, along with her sister, the stage director Jenny Pluvium, has opened with her personal funds a new theatre, “The Red Rising Theater”. Its first show, called “The Balcony”, is scheduled for the next Friday and this will mark Jenny’s debut as playwriter. It will be also the testing ground for most of the actors, because they are at their first real public performance.

Lisa Pluvium is worried since she has found that very morning, on a script in her dressing room, a death threat. “LiSa PlUVIuM oN OpEnING night YOU WiLl DIE” can be read on the cuttings glued on it. Rowan Manory accepts the assignment, but not before having asked her specific questions to reveal the personalities, hates and grudges that hover behind the scenes of the show. Lisa Pluvium ensures the investigator that nobody has a reason to kill her, but Manory feels there is something the actress is hiding from him. What is it?

Intrigued by the affair but especially seduced by the actress’s grace, Manory goes to the theatre the next day after the final rehearsal to see if everything is in order. Indeed, the fact that the death threat has been laid on the script in the part related to the fourth scene of the first act makes Manory suspect that, whoever the author was, he had wanted to indicate when her departure would happen. In this scene Lisa is in a sort of tower, about 20 feet high. The structure can be accessed through a back staircase, and, in that very moment on the stage, only she and Edward Filius are acting, the latter also in the balcony but separated from Lisa by a partition.

Manory examines the premises meticulously in order to figure out the disposition of the scenography and to identify the eventual manner with which a murderer could strike. The day of the show arrives and Rowan Manory, in order to shake up the unknown killer’s confidence, reveals to the cast, just before the beginning of the performance, that Lisa has received a death threat. Some of them think that it is a bad-taste joke, others, more worried, want to interrupt everything. Nevertheless, the show must go on. The night the show begins and then the famous fourth scene of the first act arrives.

Rowan is in the audience, watching the scene from the front row whilst his colleague Williams has constantly remained near Lisa when she was off the stage. At the end of the third scene, Lisa waits for Edward to go up the ladder towards his particular place, then she goes on the same balcony. She arrives at the designated location but falls to the stage, 20 feet below. The crack of her broken neck echoes throughout the theatre. The spectators watch astonished and frightened by the macabre scene.

But the most stunned of them all was Rowan, who couldn’t avoid the inevitable.

Yet there was no one near Lisa, and both he and Williams had surveilled her with great caution. The structure, in addition, didn’t present any opportunity for sabotage and from the next postmortem we discover that no poison was found in her body. How was she killed? And for what reason?

Rowan Manory will have to investigate the labyrinthine world of the theatre, a universe accustomed to artifice where it’s far more difficult to tell who is lying and who is telling the truth. But all the characters in the book move on a double stage, that of “The Red Rising Theatre” and that of their sordid private lives filled with hidden skeletons. In that plethora of red-herrings, where the path to the solution is dotted with multiple tracks that usually lead to dead ends, Rowan Manory will have to work hard to find the truth of this clever crime, not before coming across other grim murders and traumas that will mark him for the rest of his life.

“The Opening Night Murders” is a novel that shows the hand of a seasoned writer, who knows the techniques of the profession and succeeds in constructing an intricate and absolutely astounding plot. The strength of Byrnside, besides in the detective novel mechanism, lays in his personal style: his writing, always balanced between humour and tension, action scenes and sequences of reflection and deduction, but also highly adrenalized pursuits.

The novel positions itself halfway between the classic mystery, shown in Manory’s frequent deductions, based on observation data and their correct interpretation, reminiscent of Holmes particular methods, and the American hard-boiled, with shootings, characters with criminal records, drug addicts, violent scenes, and an aura of constant misery. The background of the story, the turbulent Chicago, ties perfectly together these two subgenres of the detective fiction, rendering this novel fresh and varied, with an irregular course, sometimes slow for the surveys, sometimes hectic in the action sequences.

If the classic side of the book can be noticed essentially in the deductive processes of Manory, who, relying on the clues at his disposal, reveals the truth hidden in a myriad of lies, usually not related to the case in question, instead the “realistic” nature of the genre comes out of dialogues, in the way the characters confront the investigators and the law forces.

Frequent is the use of slang, of biting pub jokes and occasionally explicit references to sex and the degradation of a society devoted to drugs and brawls emerge in it.

Rowan Manory himself, with his bold personality, with his constant dark mood, well fits into that contest and the dialogues with his assistant and their frequent playful skirmishes are filled with vulgar term, make more the pages more pleasant. Byrnside manages to depict with great talent the American social context of those gloomy years dominated by a deep malaise born from the Great Depression.

Not only the descriptions of a decadent Chicago, beloved but in the meantime detested by the protagonists for its endemic corruption and violence, the picture of a series of ambiguous and vicious characters, who mask dirty secrets, confer on the story a certain sluggish atmosphere, in which the murder takes on quite inhuman features and an underlying unrest, but also the construction and the sequence of the different scenes, that follow one another with at a fast pace, contribute to that.

In this aspect Byrnside takes up, adapting it to his own flair, the style of his favourite writer, Christianna Brand: as the latter was skillful in alternating single detached scenes, each with a focus on a particular character. Byrnside usually varies the narration by inserting first of all scenes of inquest, then chapters dedicated to better frame the “dramatis personae” of the novel, and then moving on scenes charged with tension and a subtle, perverse suspense. In this regard he usually uses the cliffhanger technique, leaving open narrative parts in which the tension is at its maximum, devising thus an uninterrupted series of ascending climaxes, broken off then in their apex, inducing the reader to continue the reading to get an answer for all the various riddles left unsolved.

A structure of that type, besides giving dynamism, smoothness and anxiety within the novel, is functional to the investigative plot because, revealing the characters’ secrets only in a half, the various red-herrings are nourished in a clever way, leaving the reader with the task of connecting a lot of mysteries that seem not to find a cohesion on their own. Great is also the atmosphere, in which comedy and tragedy blend together, usually in an indissoluble manner. Byrnside gives also a nod to the thriller and the gothic when he describes the advancing of the mysterious murderer, who, as a bloodthirsty, ferocious beast, flings himself at his victim. The author nevertheless doesn’t incur in the error, frequent in the genre, of describing in detail these very events: he instead leaves everything open, focusing the reader’s attention on a minor particular that increases the perversity of the crime. These episodes can’t but make me remember those grim chapters with which Christianna Brand managed to make my skin crawl, like the scenes of the second murder in her “Green for Danger”.  In short, it’s a novel that emanates perversity, evilness and a macabre vein which makes strained, nervous, at times insane the entire narration. The atmosphere resulted from this jubilation of hate, cruelty and evil, that plays on the psychological factor, is definitely better than that in the sombre “Goodnight Irene”. Awesome was also the ending from a dramatic point of view: it’s powerful, stark, a little bit like the life in that city where the hell seems like a fun joke. The theatrical drama, that is the starting point of the plot, breaks the fourth wall and permeates the entire book.

As for the mystery structure, Byrnside here also shows his strong bond with the detective novels of the previous century: multiple are the references to Holmes, to Christie for some clue scenes, to Brand for the swirl of false solutions that makes the reader’s impatience and restlessness heighten and for the plot, similar to her famous “Death of Jezebel”, that Byrnside considers one of his favourite books.

The enigma in “The Opening Night Murders” is complex, tormented, convoluted, but everything is perfectly calibrated: it is a labyrinthine story, with thousand concatenations, chaotic in appearance but with a unitary design. Byrnside gives life to a kaleidoscope of suspects, red-herrings, ambiguous events that shed repeatedly a new light to some characters. It’s difficult in the first half of the novel put together the various parts in a coherent and convincing whole. I had to make a comparison, I would say that this book is similar to a big complicated jigsaw puzzle: the author puts at the disposal of the reader all the elements in a completely casual manner and he guides him gradually up to compose at first a vaguely outlined figure, then a more complete one and finally, a clearly definite image. A process that requires a certain skill in placing temporarily the events, in knowing how to manage them in a coherent and original ending. And he can do it great. Not every piece obviously goes to compose the central image, but some of them are only outline, even if at the beginning they seemed essential.

As for the premises of the impossible crime, a fall from a balcony without anyone near the victim, they are extraordinary: the investigation part is finely constructed and the solution is simple yet highly ingenious. This last one has some affinities with two outstanding Carr novels, from which Byrnside seems to have taken inspiration, combining them in a curious way. The only criticism I can make is that about the delay in the discovery of an important element for a total fair play, though I understand that it would be difficult to integrate it earlier, because the resolution would be too rapidly identifiable.

So all in all “The Opening Night Murders” stands out like a well-structured novel, with a very ingenious and tortuous plot and a beautiful impossible murder that gives us hope for a bright future of the classic mystery fiction. A little contemporary masterpiece by a writer with great narrative and creative skills. I wait with anticipation for his next novel, a prequel already announced also in the aforementioned plot.

PS: in the novel there are usually references to the previous “Goodnight Irene”, with explicit revelation of the culprit. So it’s better to read Byrnside’s books in order.”

1 thought on “Review of The Opening Night Murders by Gabriele Crescenzi”

  1. Thank you so much, James! I’m really glad you like it. When the reader is able to feel what the author wanted to communicate, the latter has succeeded in his task. Reviews are only reflections of an author’s skill and you have it. Hope you’ll continue your work in this fascinating genre, bringing to it new ideas like you did with GI and TONM. Looking forward your next novel!


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