The Strange Case Of The Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) by James Scott Byrnside

Barrington Hills has long been haunted by a vampire. In 1880, he tore through the population, leaving mutilated corpses in his wake. He was caught, killed and buried… only now it seems the Barrington Hills Vampire has returned.

Famed detective Rowan Manory and his sidekick Walter Williams are hired to debunk a séance at Barrington Hills, a task that is easily accomplished – apart from a mysterious presence at the table that was blowing in people’s ears. But soon things take a serious turn when their host is murdered in a barn with only his footprints leading there in the snow. When a second death occurs, with the victim safely locked inside their bedroom, it seems that the vampire may have returned. After all, he’s not in his coffin any more…

My fellow bloggers have been praising this to the high heavens recently, as an excellent pastiche of the Golden Age – it has footprints in the snow, a map of the house, a dying message, clues aplenty, a challenge to the reader and two locked room murders! Some heirs to a possible fortune, along with some hangers on who might have ulterior motives, basically it ticks all the boxes. And I can see why my fellow bloggers like it, for the most part. The mystery is well-constructed, the events move at a fast pace and there are some excellent structural choices – the denouement where Manory explains his theories not to the suspects but to… well, probably a minor spoiler, so I won’t say, is an interesting choice and works well.

I’m sure careful readers will have picked up on a certain phrase I used there –“for the most part”. There were certain aspects of the tale that jarred with me. Not the central plot, although I was somewhat less than convinced by the motive, with more than a whiff of “the killer’s a nutter”. A nutter with a nutty reason, and a fairly clued nutter at that, but I wasn’t convinced the end goal was worth the shenanigans they had to commit on the way to it.

There are also some unpleasant bits. Call me a prude if you like, but I don’t think that a certain word that rhymes with punt has any place in a Golden Age-esque mystery novel – or possibly any novel that I want to read. Yes, it’s in an extract from a book written by an unpleasant Lovecraft-esque character that is supposed to be disturbing, but I was more than disturbed before I got to that.

There are other more tangible issues. Manory turns a blind eye to a truly horrific event at one point. I don’t mind my heroes being flawed, but I do want them to be heroes. While there may have been nothing he could do to stop the event in question, I would have liked to see some remorse about it, rather than acceptance.

For the most part, Manory and Williams make a good team, although I’m not convinced exactly what Williams really brings to the team apart from his fists. There are occasions when Williams annoyed me – abandoning his friend because the possibility of a night with two women seemed rather churlish, if, I admit, true to his character.

I apologise somewhat, especially to the author who I do know pops over here on occasion, as that section of niggles went on for a while, and that isn’t representative of my overall opinion. Yes, those things irked me, but this was also the best book that I’ve read for a good while. With the chaos going on around us all at the moment, it’s been a while since I’ve had a book that I couldn’t put down and this made a very pleasant change. A proper mystery that pulled the wool over my eyes and echoes classics such as Hake Talbot’s Rim Of The Pit and Carter Dickson’s The Reader Is Warned. Definitely an author to keep an eye on and a book for fans of classic mysteries with a dark side to take a look at.

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