book review, The Five False Suicides

Gabriele Crescenzi’s review of The 5 False Suicides

Gabriele is always kind enough to translate his (Italian) reviews for me to read. Here are his thoughts on my latest novel. Enjoy.

“In the scene of traditional detective fiction, essentially two schools of thought can be counted based upon the different approach with which the crime and the plot that revolves around it are dealt with: on one hand there are authors who lend great importance to the accurate description of the settings which work as a background to criminal events, in which the rhythm is relaxed and more static also due to the presence of detailed analysis as of the inquiries as of the characters’ personality, which frequently happens in the British mystery, especially in the so-called “country-house murder”, deeply connected with a restricted and well-outlined place, to which the central dynamics are usually associated; on the other, instead, there is a list of authors who set up their stories not on broad and decorative digressions or on all-round illustrations of the various figures, but on a rapid sequence of events, with a quick, hectic pace, full of suspense and tension, which leads to an inevitable flattenings of characters and of setting for a predominance of dialogic parts and fast-moving elements.

This last trend is evident above all in French and American crime stories, where little attention is paid to descriptive aspects and agile, slender plots are favored, composed of a continuous chain of events. As a consequence, the “armchair detectives” are banned in favor of figures who, more than study, can literally pursue crime: in this sense, we can mention the industrious André Brunel of “Six crimes sans assassin” by Boileau, a novel that travels through the urban alleys of Paris, but also the meditative M. Allou, a character conceived by Noël Vindry, who, despite solving the cases with the sole aid of his logic, is the protagonist of stories based more on action than images and psychology of the “dramatis personae”.

They are, therefore, two opposite ways to deal with a mystery novel, where on one side greater narrative distension is privileged, with a more accurate delineation of the premises as usually happens in Christie’s works, and, on the other one, the principal aim is to create tension and adrenaline through the continuous and frenetic flow of happenings, frequently followed by authors like Brown, Rogers, Pronzini and, recently, by one of the most promising contemporary crime writers on the market, James Scott Byrnside, with his fourth novel “The 5 False Suicides” (2021).

“The 5 False Suicides” is an agile, fast and frantic novel, in which the author, detaching himself from the style of his previous works, more in line with classic standards and with a distinct Brandian influence in the expressive techniques and in the vague characterization of the characters, turns on the pulp genre, with a staggering whirl of events, creating a plot with a fast-paced, hypnotic, captivating rhythm, still not going beyond the lines of the deductive mystery, represented, after all, by an interesting, labyrinthine and particularly ingenious enigma.

The beginning of the story takes us to August 1947, in Maine: on a hot Saturday afternoon, on the stage of the empty “Danvers Playhouse”, the members of MASONS (“Murder-mystery Appreciation Society of New Sweden “), a club of enthusiastic mystery readers are gathered for their weekly reunion. President of the association is the young Gretta Grahame, a girl with a troubled past who, however, thanks to her passion for this narrative genre, is managing to face her own demons. The group, miscellaneous both in age and in personality and literary tastes, consists of seven other members: Faye Withers, a handsome girl who, with her provocative behavior, embodies the perfect figure of the inveterate seductress; George Danvers, kindly ex-actor and owner of the theatre where the MASONS gather; Olive Tennants, a rich and scowling woman, with her husband Harry, a gaunt and dull person; Oscar Strom, a cynical hotel concierge; the loving and close-knit elderly couple made up of Alice and Tom Mower. The group, after the vote on the next mystery to be read together, begins to discuss Oscar’s idea for an impossible crime he conceived and that he’d like to include in his first novel, dismantling his whole plan with logic. Oscar, however, is not the only aspiring writer in the group: also Gretta and Olive are in fact collaborating on a novel, usually meeting at the home that the former shares with Faye to write some chapters, just as they are going to do that same evening.
Their creative session, however, will be interrupted by a strange call for Gretta: it’s her uncle Scotty, who warns her that he has come to stay in a hotel in her city to discuss a particularly urgent matter with her. Gretta, asking for more explanations, thus discovers that her family, for two generations, has been prey to a horrible curse cast by her own grandfather to his offspring, as a result of which all the Grahame are destined to commit suicide. Gretta, on the advice of her uncle, begins to record all the deaths that have occurred in the family, becoming thus aware of a creepy fact: many Grahames, her mother, her father, her uncles, have actually committed suicide over the years.  The latest victim was her aunt Suzie, who died of a barbiturate overdose a few days earlier. For an impressive amount of 13 suicides. Only two survivors of the family remain: herself and her uncle. Precisely to prevent the worst hypothesis, her uncle gives her an appointment for the following Tuesday in his hotel room to attempt to break the spell cast decades earlier by a still alive wizard, the mystical Boroqe Rieszak. After the call, Gretta doesn’t know what to think: her family tragedy begins to make sense, as does her attempt, months before, to take her own life.  Frightened but at the same time intrigued by the mystery that this situation promises, also urged by her friends, she decides to go to the bottom of the business. However, delaying the meeting even for just a few days, especially with an inevitable sentence on one’s head, will be literally mortal… Dialing the uncle the evening before their appointment to give him the confirmation, a foreign voice answers the phone: it’s the stolid policeman Brodsky, who announces the passing away of his uncle, who died in his room, locked from the inside, apparently for a wrong dosage of some pills. But is it really suicide?  Her mind as a mystery reader leads her to think about the most intricate solutions, but she has no clue to start with but the (fake or not?) note left by her uncle, in which he urges her to save herself by contacting the mystic Rieszak.
Frightened but excited by the idea of ​​living a story that seems to have come out of the pages of her favorite writers, Gretta, together with Faye and Olive, goes to the wizard’s house. The latter, aware of the reason for their visit, tells them that the curse of the Grahame family is connected with the story of an Indian, Soctomah, who killed himself a century earlier on an island in southern Maine, Blood Island, invoking the underworld forces against those who dared to profane his land. Through a frightening ritual, the wizard makes the presents the girl’s surrogate relatives, advising them to go to the island, where the tomb of the Indian still lies, to try to put an end to her anathema. Despite the perceived malign influence and George’s subsequent attempts to stop Gretta, still unstable after the psychological treatments, the latter, determined to face once and for all her painful past and ready to discover what truth is hidden behind those numerous deaths, set off with the MASONS to Bloody Island, now turned in a luxury resort called “Heaven’s Gate”.
The island, connected to the mainland by a narrow natural strip of limestone deposits, if before it appeared a natural paradise overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, in recent times it has become an unwelcoming and terrifying place due to the countless fires that are devastating the area and to the terror aroused by an elusive serial killer, the so-called Burlington Butcher, who is killing many victims in the region, the last of whom was found on one of the beaches of Heaven’s Gate.
In a nutshell, not the best of hospitality, but consistent with the mission that Gretta and her friends have to carry out.
But the path to the salvation of Gretta will turn out to be covered with blood and death: one by one the members of the club will inexplicably begin to commit suicide, all inside locked rooms and in the presence of many witnesses. And as the flames advance to lap the island and the number of survivors gets thinner, panic spreads unstoppable and there will be little time to reflect and connect all the facts into a rational whole. Because logic falters in front of the insane mind of a particularly cunning murderer…

“The 5 False Suicides” is an atypical novel by James Scott Byrnside, in which the traditional themes of the mystery are flanked by influences derived from several genres, from the pulp, which is the predominant core of the book, to the hard-boiled, to absorb suggestions also from the Francophone mystery and the Japanese shin-honkaku movement.
In such a dense, variegated, and unusual whole, however, the model to which the plot conforms most is unequivocal that constituted by the pulp, a literary current characterized by stories with a strong emotional impact, with great dynamism, where action and sensationalism are preferred to narrative depth, often achieved by resorting to a rapid pace of macabre or violent events. From this literary genre the author recalls stylistic features and narrative techniques, marking a decisive change of course compared to his previous production: if in fact in his first novels the narrative fabric betrayed more traditional influences and used, for the purposes of the enigma, an illusory game of perspectives, based on a strong albeit ambiguous psychological characterization of the characters, taking advantage of their ambivalence and duplicity as misdirection, on the heels of Christianna Brand, here the plot is built entirely on action, seen as a series of odd, dark criminal events, which follow one another rapidly, engagingly and disturbingly.
The configuration of the storyline has an almost cinematographic cut, comparable to numerous frames of a movie, in which each event immediately follows another one, with the result that the intrinsic meaning of the work lies not so much in the individual facts or enigmas, but in their totality. The beauty of the novel, its strong point, therefore lies in the rapid and charming temporal concatenation of its elements, which assume a particular grip and a precise value exclusively by reason of the speed with which they are presented.
It’s a book that captures you in the hypnotic and adrenaline-pumping whirlwind of its events, which persuades you to enter a vortex from which, once inside, it’s difficult to get out without being tossed and overturned.

The fundamental crux of this style, contaminated in some parts by hard-boiled elements, for the presentation of a corrupt society, especially in its main bodies, such as the police, and by noir, found in the painful and tormented story of Gretta, is, therefore, the use of a fast, pressing rhythm, so fast to be frenetic, destabilizing, insane. At the end of the reading, the prevailing feeling is a mixture of euphoria and disorientation, as if one had just been on some sort of narrative roller-coaster.
All this contributes to making “The 5 False Suicides” a page-turning novel, in which, due to its style, in the epilogue the reader finds himself having no theory, no hypothesis, having been dragged into a chaotic spiral that doesn’t give time to reflect.
Impression, moreover, intensified both by the enormous amount of material that constitutes the mystery part of the novel, represented by the abnormal amount of deaths, secret intrigues, chases, and red-herrings, by a minimalist characterization of the characters, which, yet well distinguishable, are reduced to fixed types without any roundness, and descriptions cut to the bone, for which the background is left to the imagination of the reader and by the sense of imminent danger that spreads both the impressive succession of false suicides and the advancing fire that blocks the characters on the island, giving the narration a sense of claustrophobia and oppression.
Even if the consistency of the enigma would require a greater narrative space, a less spasmodic rhythm to be fully developed, Byrnside manages to handle these opposing currents with great skill, while giving up the descriptive and introspective part.
In this perspective, the novel, being decidedly short for what it contains, may not meet everyone’s tastes, yet I believe that a greater length of the plot would have distorted the operation the writer wanted to carry out here: the frantic trend, the convoluted plot and the scarce depth of the figures are traits established by the author to create a crime novel that has the primary prerogative of entertaining.
“The Five False Suicides” is a work that was born as a function of pure evasion, which it fulfills in order to make the reader spend a few pleasant hours, but without renouncing a good puzzle and the tricks and the traps typical of the genre. It’s a book written with fun, as evidenced by the abyssal contrast of tone with the previous works, and if in the end, some details remain inaccurate in certain aspects, they are forgiven due to the complexity of a plot with such a sparkling and tense narrative line and to the economy of details in the abundance of events.
There is certainly no shortage of tragic scenes full of pathos, especially in the ending, but they take on lighter and more adventurous tones.
In this aspect, the author follows the trail of crime writers such as Fredric Brown, John Russell Fearn, and Theodore Roscoe, who, mixing bizarre crimes and narrative frivolousness, have drawn attention to an aspect that, although it’s often underestimated, actually constitutes the essence of literature, especially that of the mystery genre: pure escape.

The entertaining and light aspect of the book is also underlined by the presence of an interesting metaliterary, at times parodic, vein, which invests many elements of the enigma.
The author enjoys taking up some of the recurring subjects of the mystery, criticizing, deforming, sometimes exploiting them for the purpose of resolving the central plot. A game of references and citations is thus created, in which in the same literary fiction we discuss the literary fiction itself and the rules that govern it.
This playful attitude emerges from the first chapter, in which, presenting an interesting discussion on the crime fiction among the members of a club of fans, functional to the presentation of the various figures, in a similar way to what happens in the prologue of “Invisible Green” by Sladek, the various types of mystery readers are parodically represented: Gretta, with her sophisticated tastes and her great deductive ability, embodies the prototype of a demanding reader who is amazed by very few readings, being usually able to anticipate the final solution; the Mowers are the model of the reader who prefers the good characterization of the characters and environments to the solidity of the enigma, lovers therefore of the cozy-mystery in which violence and sex are strictly banned (and for this reason they are fans of Ngaio Marsh); Oscar, on the other hand, is the typical meticulous reader, attentive to the slightest smudges and with a more critical than literary approach. This effective and ironic metaliterary representation creates in the reader greater empathy with the figures, which are poorly delineated, as they partly recognized themselves in one of the categories of which they are spokespersons.
Furthermore, this initial situation resumes a classic topos of the genre, in which a circle of enthusiastic readers of mystery books finds itself having to face a real case, a theme that characterizes great masterpieces such as “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Berkeley or “Bloodhounds” by Peter Lovesey, who in turn made crime writers’ habit, very popular in the Golden Age of the genre, of meeting to discuss the laws, narrative techniques and ideas behind the “greatest game of the world”, literary, a demonstration of which was the prestigious “Detection Club” founded by big names such as Berkeley, Chesterton, Crofts, and Sayers.
Throughout the plot, moreover, there are frequent discussions between the characters about the mystery, the various dynamics to create a locked room, or the motives that push somebody to kill. The characters even search within the genre for the rules to apply to the case they are facing, creating a twine in which reality and narrative fiction are inseparably merged.

Byrnside, as well as creating a bewitching metaliterary echo, with this novel establishes a great tribute to the deductive mystery genre, thanks to the repeated quotations, influences, and references on which the narration itself is articulated. In this sense the work is presented as a rich ensemble of leitmotifs, in a sort of continuous connection with the great past tradition: the nucleus from which the series of events starts, that is the curse of Grahame’s family, is linked to the mystery with a supernatural tone, based on ancestral genealogical occurrences, as happens in “Hag’s Nook”, “The Plague Court Murders” and “The Case of the Constant Suicides” by Carr or in “Whistle Up the Devil” by Derek Smith; the various dissertations on locked rooms and on how to deconstruct them recall the large inserts on the subject by Carr and Rawson; the situation of isolation in a place far from the civilised world, in which an unstoppable series of deaths begins, calls to mind Christie’s masterpiece “And Then There Were None”, to which is added the reflection of “The Siamese Twin Mystery” by Queen due to the presence of the fire which acts as an imminent danger; the story of the Burlington Butcher is a reference to the famous current of the mystery fiction dedicated to serial murders, with a pinch of splatter (in the amputation of the victims’ middle and index fingers), which is affected by the gore present in contemporary Japanese mysteries.

As for the pure mystery aspect, it too conforms to the frenetic rhythm of the narration, with diagrams and graphic representations on the movements of suspects or on the hypothetical dynamics of the crimes which are well suited to the dynamism, the speed of reading, excellent for quick and non-demanding checks.
Suspicion dominates uncontested in a plot in which it is uncertain who is the culprit and the investigator, in which each theory seems to discredit the previous one, offering from time to time a completely different vision of the case.  There are many red herrings, secondary issues that make the mystery more unfathomable and intricate.
In a flurry of hypotheses, suppositions, and false truths, we arrive at the apex of narrative tension in a very iconic, tragic, and coarse ending, strongly influenced by Christianna Brand for the pessimism and cruelty it exudes, in which selfishness and greed dominate.
In the unhealthy, mephitic atmosphere of the epilogue, exacerbated, among other things, by the approaching fire and by the presence of an unknown killer, perhaps more fearful than the tangibility of the flames, the author amazes and upsets the reader with a pyrotechnic twist, which completely overturns the final perspective. The solution, therefore, is a real surprise despite having been used several times within the genre. 
The explanation of the locked rooms, on the other hand, is canonical but astute, employing a nice variation of one of the most ancient tricks of this subgenre, but which, at the same time, comes unexpected thanks to a skillful misdirection. Nevertheless, I much preferred the alternative dynamic proposed in the false solution, because it’s based on a very simple but incredibly ingenious staging, reminiscent of some mechanisms used by Paul Halter. However, this does not detract anything from the beauty of the finale of this work which, despite having different smudges, more due to the particular narrative style than to anything else, leaves that bitter aftertaste, that sensation of simultaneous terror and catharsis that only the greatest novels are able to inspire.”

Gabriele

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