Read a page or three of Riot Most Uncouth and you may wonder why you’d want to stick around while young Lord Byron, author Daniel Friedman’s overwrought and outlandish protagonist, makes his eccentric, in-your-face debut. But stay on for a few more pages and you’ll find yourself intrigued and then committed to Friedman’s lavish, over-the-top plot and larger-than-life characters.
As with his award-winning fictional octogenarian Buck Schatz (Don’t Ever Get Old), Friedman’s imagination has run away with him again through crazy, volatile Byron, who is busy cutting a swath of drunkenness and sexual debauchery through the halls of Cambridge University in the company of his companion, a bear named the Professor. Byron, who fancies that his detective powers are unrivaled, is sure he can solve the case of a murder most gory that has been committed in Cambridge. He sets himself upon the task while not for a moment changing his dramatic lifestyle. His persistent, drunken intrusions into the crime scene upset the search undertaken by two apparent private investigators, Knifing and Dingle, who operate separately and rate pretty high in the “strange” category themselves.
The case escalates with more graphic murders, and Byron becomes suspect numero uno in some quarters, enduring a wild, punishing arrest attempt in a runaway carriage. But he’s implacable in his own fears that the crimes somehow involve his father, the long-gone and assumed dead Mad Jack, and his tales of vampires, told to Jack when he was a child living in horrific domestic circumstances. Byron is in thrall to these stories of the undead that frighten, repel and attract him in equal measure. It’s easy to get hooked on Byron’s wild imaginings as he reels out his wavering and fantastic but ultimately spot-on deductions.
Friedman has created a rogues’ gallery of bizarre and seamy characters in this bauble of a story that rankles, reeks and ultimately delights. Readers who start out wishing that Byron could be imprisoned for something—anything, really—may end up with an unexpected affection for Friedman’s overblown but endearing creation, hoping that young Byron will return to entangle us again in a mad quest for . . . whom? Perhaps the Cambridge murderer, who may have disappeared, or even some new embodiment of Byron's father’s eerie fantasies. The poet is confident he’s up to the challenge.