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!
27 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB FROM HELL!!! The Five False Suicides”
I have all the issues of Tales From The Crypt including the 3- dimensional issue provided with 2 3D- viewers !
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How many issues IS that . . . and covering how many years??
There are 32 issues including 2 special issues covering the period 1950-55.
It’s not just that people don’t read. They can’t read. Most people today couldn’t read a book if their life depended on it. We live in a post-literate society.
We also live in a post-communication society. People can no longer communicate in a coherent and complex way. They can no longer think in a coherent and complex way. They think in slogans and memes. They cannot communicate a thought that requires more than 280 characters.
Even blogging is now all but dead.
Those of us who still read books are like weird fetishists, practising our vice in solitude.
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I gotta say d, that’s bleak! So bleak that it makes me sound like Pollyanna, and Byrnside’s book read like Emma! I hate to think that blogging is “all but dead!” – I just started!! On a positive note, I really enjoy the erotically-charged, often amusing, sometimes disturbing (but in an erotically-charged, amusing way) images that flow through my Twitter feed, thanks to you! And here I was thinking that soft-core was all but dead . . . go figure!
I started blogging in 2004. I’ve watched the blogosphere slowly dying. Blogs just don’t have the reach today that they had then. The readership of blogs has plummeted.
You know what has shocked me about Twitter? People have 280 characters in which to express some thought or emotion and they don’t even use the 280 characters. People will post an image of a movie poster, let’s say for example Notorious, and all they’ll say is “now watching.” You wait for a follow-up post with at least a two or three sentence response to the movie but you don’t get it. They can’t even give you two or three sentences.
You can also smell the fear on Twitter. The fear of offending. They know that if they say that overall they really liked Notorious but they weren’t totally convinced by Cary Grant’s performance a whole bunch of people will unfollow them for “negativity” so the safest thing is to offer no opinion at all. I’m not talking about political opinions. On Twitter you can’t express any opinion at all on any subject, even if it’s totally apolitical. If you do you’ll quickly find yourself without any followers. So on social media people choose the safe option. They post amusing videos of cats doing cute things.
I’m starting to understand the Twitter culture and it terrifies me.
It’s sad to say, but you’re quite right about reading being a declining art. Even throughout this thrice-blasted pandemic, I’ve felt perfectly safe reading in my college library, simply because I can be absolutely certain that no one has come anywhere near the books I’m reading. And the whole time I’m there, I can hear the incessant tap-tap-tap of my fellow students using the computers on the floor below. (Which really seems like tempting fate. Personally, I wouldn’t touch one of those germ-magnets if you paid me to!)
And this reminds me, I’ve got all three of Byrnside’s books sitting unread on my pile. (Well, one is. The other two are e-books.) I’ve really got to get reading them!
The whole “fill the computer carrels but leave the books alone” vibe that I find in libraries infuriates me! Plus, I think there’s something about computers that makes people think that when they’re sitting in front of one, they’re alone. I’ve seen folks perusing porn right out there in the open. I’m sure some folks are writing/researching their term papers, but I see more playing computer games. And while I’m sure some of these are kids who can’t afford a computer at home (or don’t get much shared time), I’d feel better if I saw a little stack of books by their side as they played their games . . .
Regarding Byrnside, I urge you to read them in order. That’s all I’m saying about that!
Yikes! I’ve not seen that, at least, but I’m not surprised. (Of course, the college library is nothing compared to the public libraries. Aside from the computers, there are people talking on their phones, babies crying, people having loud conversations, and, once, a guy very loudly asking if they have some obscure Chuck Norris action movie, but he only want’s it if they have it on VHS. And this was the quiet branch of the library.) Infuriating is the right word for it. I mean, you’re surrounded by humanity’s collected knowledge, wisdom, and stories and all you want to do is surf the web!?
And it never even occurred to me to read them out of order. I bought Goodnight Irene near the beginning of the year and then just picked the other two up when they were on sale for $1 a piece, since it was pretty much a sure thing that I’d want to read them. (I’d have to start with the first one anyway, since, since I vastly prefer print to e-books.)
I know a lady who has a fifteen-year-old son. Recently she mentioned buying a book for him for school. She then added that there was no point really because he wouldn’t read it because he’s never read a book in his life. No-one in his class reads the set books. They might watch the movie if there’s a movie adaptation but that’s as far as they go. And they still pass their exams because the teachers don’t expect them to read the books.
Along with its sister titles, The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror, Tales From the Crypt was very popular, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s comic books came under attack from parents, clergymen, schoolteachers and others who believed the books contributed to illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. In April and June 1954, highly publicized Congressional subcommittee hearings on the effects of comic books upon children left the industry shaken. With the subsequent imposition of a highly restrictive Comics Code, these three series were discontinued. All these titles have been reprinted at various times since their demise, and stories from the horror series have been adapted for television and film.
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On the whole, while I thought this was a bit weaker than the previous three entries, I’d still say on the whole I enjoyed it.
I think the first half was stronger than the second for me; once the killing train starts it doesn’t take many stops, and I think that’s a missed opportunity in building some atmosphere and dread in-between the chapters, especially given the setting. The motive behind everything also kinda left a sour taste in my mouth, but is what it is.
I think imagining it as more of an Italian slasher helps in understanding some of the decisions in story structure and plot progression, but given the fact that the characters are mystery nerds and interject meta-reasoning when discussing what’s going on, it’s hard to NOT view it as a detective story at the same time.
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I really enjoyed your comments here DWaM and think they’re eminently fair, especially the comparison to giallo films. This is kind of like watching an Argento film, only one with a sense of humor, where you’re thrilled and scared but you don’t care about these people because you never see them outside of the violence, and where the reveal of the killer and their motive creeps you out more than satisfies you.
Libraries here are still really popular and all the kids I know love reading (and also need to read at least 30 pages a week in elementary school if they want to pass). Hopefully it’s just a trend in America.
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What we’re facing is driven by technological change not culture. So it’s a global thing. I come into contact with a lot of Millennials and Zoomers here in Australia. Not one of them reads. Not one. They don’t do anything that you can’t do instantly on a smartphone.
It’s not just that they don’t read books. They don’t read anything at all, unless it’s a one-sentence message on social media.
Smartphones and social media have changed society and culture completely. They have ushered in a new non-literate culture. It’s a culture in which all communication takes place in the form of images, slogans and memes. It’s a culture in which the ability to express, or to understand, complex thoughts or ideas has disappeared.
There’s still a tiny minority of people who read books but they’re regarded as weird deviants. It’s not just that most Millennials and Zoomers don’t read books. They can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to read a book.
Millennials and Zoomers are very nice people. They’re pleasant and polite. But complex ideas are totally beyond them.
The important thing to understand is that it’s not a conspiracy. The problems are inherent in technologies such as smartphones and social media. If you have a society in which everybody has a smartphone and a social media account you’ll have a post-literate non-literate society.
I get what you’re saying. Some Millennials and Zoomers are very SMART people, too, but they’re smart in a different way, and they communicate knowledge and ideas differently. They want things to happen faster, and I think this is one of the biggest consequences of the smartphone age. I can’t imagine going on a trip anymore and just . . . wandering. Now we have a pocket computer at our fingertips, which is nice for directions, but how often do we find ourselves reading our phone instead of looking at the place or thing our phone brought us to see?
Books move too slowly for a lot of these people; so do films that aren’t about super-heroes. Worst of all, with everything at their fingertips through the internet, life holds few mysteries for them. This has made them incurious, and that’s scary. It isn’t every person, however, and I would argue that large swaths of citizens have been incurious throughout time – unless someone tries to take something away from them – like endless access to toilet paper.
The worst thing is that monsters have taken advantage of this and have even laid claim that those who LIKE to read, who ARE curious, who DO want to think and argue and hold opinions, are evil.
Now, can we talk about fun stuff again??
“Smartphones and social media have changed society and culture completely.”
To be fair, technology in general has been changing society and culture for more than a century now, but the problem is that, until recently, technology was a convenience that was just there and not a constant intrusion. The telephone made communication easier, but with landlines you had to be there to pick up and could ring all night long without interrupting your meal when you were out for dinner. The TV dominated the living rooms during the second half of the previous century, but most people had fixed times/programs and it didn’t distract you when you were at work. Same goes for surfing the web on your desktop computer in the 1990s and early ’00s. So the world was completely unprepared when all these technological conveniences merged into smartphones.
I think teachers should carry some of the blame (in my country at least) why reading is on the decline with their mandatory reading lists crammed with proper literature that really need the maturity and perspective of an adult that a teenager simply doesn’t have yet. It makes reading a chore instead of a fun exploration and ensures many never pick up another book again as long as they live.
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I’m willing to acknowledge the blame you foisted on . . . well, you said “teachers” but it’s really the education system, which has determined which books are of value and which are not for over a century. There is so much rich fiction now written for children and young adults that could provide wonderful reading experiences and the thematic depth that a teacher needs to inspire discussion and further writing, but school systems don’t acknowledge the power they have as teaching tools.
As a teacher, I regret some of the experiences I created where I know most of the kids in the class never read the books or, if they did, hated them, but I also had a few success stories – not enough, but a few. As a student myself, I was the perfect kind of student, obedient, eager to please, and a lover of books. Even so, there were books I was given to read at the wrong time that, if they didn’t kill my love of reading, they sure attacked it. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Camus’ The Stranger (which I finally got more out of at university), Moby Dick!!! (Melville added 800 pages of cytology so you could experience the boredom of a whaling voyage.) Nowadays, I know my love of reading has been interrupted by technology: it’s harder for me to just sit and focus on a book. Clearly, I need some tech detox, but it’s not happening anytime soon with this pandemic going on . . .
Kids have the means of cheating at their fingertips now, which has altered the relationship between teachers and students forever. Our school began a few years ago to require students to lock up their phones in a special pouch (called a Kindle) at the start of every school day. This way, they:
1) couldn’t use their phones to take pictures of tests or look up answers;
2) couldn’t text each other (and often bully each other THROUGH texts);
3) wouldn’t be distracted during social times and have to turn to each other to talk. (You would be amazed at how many kids would sit side by side and text each other rather than speak!!!
You would be amazed (or maybe not) at how the kids fought this and, worse, how many of their parents did, too. Moms said, “I have to be able to reach my little darling to discuss . . . ” and we would reply, “No, you don’t. You will do like ye parents of olde did: call the school and we will deliver the message.” We all quickly get used to the conveniences of technology to the point where we believe we can’t live without them. Maybe we can’t – but we SHOULD be able to live without them.
I too read The Stranger at too young an age (somewhere around middle school) and thus did not understand anything about it besides the fact that it was supposed to be a “great” novel. The only difference was that I had read it over a weekend for fun. I was a strange child.
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Kids have the means of cheating at their fingertips now, which has altered the relationship between teachers and students forever.
Yes, and I suspect that there’s a lot more cheating going on than educational authorities will admit. Education departments are very reluctant to admit that the education system is hopelessly broken and that students are more or less illiterate when they leave school.
The problem is that people who are marginally illiterate end up using slogans and memes as a substitute for thinking.
TomCat, you make a good point about reading lists. Back when I was at school the books we were given to read were not always well chosen. They were not books that were likely to get teenaged boys excited about reading. Of all the great 19th century English writers Dickens is probably the one least likely to appeal to such an audience and of his books David Copperfield was perhaps the worst choice that could have been made but that’s the one we had to read. He’s not even a good writer. Wilkie Collins, Sheridan le Fanu, Rider Haggard were arguably better writers and a whole lot more exciting if you’re a 15-year-old boy. The Hound of the Baskervilles or Rider Haggard’s She might have really interested us.
They decided we had to be exposed to 20th century American literature (which is fair enough) but we were assigned a second-rate Steinbeck novel. Hemingway would have been a better pick. Or Chandler (a far better writer than Steinbeck).
The Australian literature we were exposed to was really dire. If left me with a life-long dislike of Australian literature.
The trouble with Australian literature is there’s not much of it. At university, we covered Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career, written when she was a teenager), Henry Handel Richardson (not bad), Patrick White, and the drug poems of Michael Dransfield. It doesn’t quite compare to European or American literature, to limit it to the West. I liked Christopher Koch’s Highways to a War, though, which we read in Year 11.
Year 10 English included Tristram Shandy, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Silas Marner, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, To the Lighthouse, Leaves of Grass, and Walden. I enjoyed the Dickens and the Conrad most! It is a list weighted towards experimental fiction or women’s novels. The historical / adventure / imaginative stream of literature is almost entirely overlooked, other than Heart of Darkness. (Great Expectations does have plenty of thrills, though, and the mystery of Pip’s benefactor.) No Dumas, no Verne, no Hugo, no Scott, no Doyle, no Stevenson, no Wells, no Haggard, no Kipling. No Borges, no Hesse, no Eco, no Calvino.
I’m an Australian born in 1983, so technically a millennial, and my friends read, and read widely and deeply. This, however, is Canberra (the capital).
There was outrage earlier this month when a charity’s second-hand bookfair was cancelled, due to a horde of “freedom” protesters.
Where do you live?!? And can I visit you?????
Where are the comments on your review? I’ll add one: Thanks for notifying me that this books exists, Brad. I have yet to read any of James’ self-published books but I’m clearly missing out on some imaginative writing and clever storytelling. I’ll have to get them all and catch up with the rest of you.
I had a whole other comment that was mini rant about people who visit blogs and then comment on the comments rather than the post. But I deleted it and saved you developing a minor migraine. You’re welcome. ;^)
Thank you, John! Lot of these comment sections are starting to resemble war zones!!! We seem to have a pretty good little group going here, and I highly recommend you checking Byrnside’s books out!
It doesn’t help, either, that Australian libraries have cleaned out most of their books. The Canberra libraries used to be rather good; their “stack” collection went back to the 1950s. They had, for instance, most of the John Dickson Carrs, including UK first editions from The Dead Man’s Knock. But 20 years or so ago, they jettisoned the lot; you would be hard-pressed to find anything published before 2010. It’s vandalism.
Part of a library’s job, I think, is to keep old books for new readers. One of the charms of the International School of Brussels library was they had the original Ian Flemings and Lloyd Alexanders and (at least) The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.
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