Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Sir Hubert Handesley’s weekend entertainments are to die for, so young reporter Nigel Bathgate has been told.  And now, thanks to his well-to-do older cousin Charles Rankin, Nigel will have the chance to participate in one himself.   The game is “Murders”, which should be jolly good fun for the middle-upper crust guests.

A Man Lay Dead

As it happens, Charles has brought along a new toy, a Mongolian dagger said to have associations with a Russian secret society.  That knife ends up in his back when the lights go out.  Did the mysterious brotherhood take revenge for learning their secrets?  Did the two affairs he was having, one with a married woman, create the motive?  Or did Nigel, who will inherit a pile of money from his cousin, decide to speed up the process?

Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard will need all his wits to unravel this puzzle!

This was the first Alleyn mystery published by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand author who cleverly left off her first name of Edith to stand out on the bookshelves.  She spent a fair amount of time in Britain, but New Zealand was her home, and several of the Alleyn books take place there.

As is par for the course with British detective stories, Inspector Alleyn is a bit eccentric.  He carries a notebook which he uses constantly, and claims to have a “filthy memory.”   (His memory is superior to most people’s.)   He’s somewhat upper-class, has an appreciation of the arts, and had originally been in the Foreign Service until an incident (unexplained in this volume) diverted him into police work.

After establishing that Nigel is almost certainly not the killer, Alleyn begins using him as a “Watson” to bounce ideas off of and explain his thought processes to.  (This continues in later stories.)

There’s some exciting scenes involving the secret society, which yes, really exists and endangers several characters.   The solution to the main mystery is a bit unlikely, but well established by clues in the lead-up.   Unlike some other mysteries of the period, the servants in the household are noticed and have roles to play, if only minor ones for most.  (A staff of about a dozen to support two members of the nobility!)  I also like that Inspector Alleyn gets on well with his Scotland Yard subordinates.

One glaring thing:  A use of the N-word by Nigel–keep in mind that this was written in England in the 1930s, so there’s a slightly different context.

If you enjoy Christie and Sayers, you will probably like Marsh as well.   (But the volumes set in New Zealand might be of more interest to someone looking for variety.)

Here’s a TV adapation (some liberties have been taken):

Book Review: The Pavilion

Book Review: The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence (also published as “The Pavilion of Death”)

When Regan Carr’s mother passes away from illness, the young woman is hard-pressed.  Her part-time job as a small town librarian for $25 a week (roughly equivalent to an $8/hr job in 2017) is not sufficient to cover the doctor’s bills and other expenses of her mother’s final days, let alone allow her to live in any sort of comfort.  So when a letter arrives from her distant (and wealthy) cousin Hurst Herald, asking her to live with him, Regan decides to give it a try.

The Pavilion

But when Regan arrives with her meager possessions, Hurst Herald is dead.  And he evidently hadn’t told the rest of the family she was coming, so the relatives view Regan with suspicion.  There are those who seem glad to see her; Miss Etta, a kleptomaniac pensioner who was an old friend of Hurst’s, and the Crain sisters, elderly maids who appreciate Regan’s kindness.  The relatives warm up a bit when she proves her arrival was expected, and Regan is given an out-of-the-way room for the moment.

This novel is in the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a dysfunctional family with dark secrets living in a fine mansion that is beginning to decay.  It’s a slow burn in many, many ways–it’s halfway through before Regan realizes that the family’s history of tragic accidents doesn’t include any actual accidents.   Much depends on her suppressed memories of what happened in the pavilion out back of the house during her childhood visit.

Regan is a petite woman, who looks even more childlike than her age of twenty-two.  A running gag is her bunny slippers, a rare splurge purchase for the poverty-stricken lady.  In a more action-packed story, she would be the damsel in distress type, but the menace here is more subtle, hidden between the lines of seemingly innocuous conversations.

The slow burn serves the story well most of the way through.  There’s a particularly chilling scene where one character’s previously comical behavior is revealed to be the result of psychological abuse as a child.  This does, however, mean that the last chapter needs to wrap everything up in a bit of a rush, with the murderer’s identity confirmed by elimination in the final paragraphs.

The viewpoint is mostly Regan’s, but we do have moments seeing the thoughts of other characters.  For example, one of the maids daydreaming about working for a less strict employer so she wouldn’t have to set her alarm clock an hour ahead to keep her job, and worrying every day that they will notice the difficulty she has getting up the stairs.  (Towards the end she talks about her and her sister’s fear of ending their days in a charity ward.)

There’s a touch of period racism; the family has no black servants because (the housekeeper thinks) they’re superstitious and don’t react well to summons from empty rooms.  African-Americans appear in scene descriptions, but none are relevant to the plot.

This is an atmospheric book that will reward the patient reader.  My 1960s copy is in rough shape; you might be able to find the 1980s reprint in better condition.

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One edited by Ian Sattler

DC Comics has produced many fine characters in its superhero books over the decades, including iconic super-villains.  It can be a lot of fun watching the bad guys do things when their specific hero isn’t around to stop them.  Thus, in 1976, we got the first DC series dedicated to the adventures of a super-villain group.

The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Several baddies are invited to a “Sinister Citadel” in San Francisco by  means ranging from a rock with a note wrapped around it to an intergalactic sub-space message.  There they are met by a clone of the Paul Kirk Manhunter (even in the 1970s we had characters with convoluted backstories) who claims to have gone mercenary and now works for their mysterious “benefactor.”  The assembled villains are ambushed by a robotic version of the Justice League, and easily smash them, demonstrating the power of numbers.  Then Gorilla Grodd and Copperhead are sent on an initiation mission, which goes south and Copperhead is captured by the police.  Still, the fun is just beginning!

Since the Comics Code was still in effect at the time, the villains could never be allowed a full victory, and in the second issue we meet Captain Comet, DC’s first mutant superhero, who hadn’t appeared since the 1950s.  It was explained he had been out in space, and unaware of current events.  The Society decides to dupe him into working with them–it doesn’t actually work because he’s out of touch, not stupid, but since it is revealed at this point that the Society’s secret benefactor is the evil New God Darkseid, who none of the villains particularly want to serve, Captain Comet winds up teaming with the Society anyhow.

Once the Darkseid situation is resolved, the various members of the Society come up with their own evil schemes, and Captain Comet proceeds to be a thorn in their sides.  This volume collects the first ten issues, and an alternate version of the first issue with slightly different characters and a significantly different plot.

Company politics resulted in three different writers in ten issues, as well as no steady art team.  Series creator Gerry Conway was the most frequent author.  This also affected the casting; some editors at DC wouldn’t let iconic villains associated with their heroes be used, so the Society was heavy on Flash foes (because Mr. Conway was also writing the Flash), relatively obscure characters such as Copperhead and the Earth-2 Wizard, and featured a new person in the role of Star Sapphire, replacing Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s long-time love interest Carol Ferris.

Lex Luthor does show up for one issue, but it’s a very poor showing for him, winding up arrested by ordinary police officers.  Longer lasting was Funky Flashman, a non-powered grifter and entrepreneur who is believed to be Jack Kirby’s satire on Stan Lee’s less stellar qualities.  (His appearance is changed in this series to more closely resemble how Stan Lee looked in the Seventies.)

Sales were never particularly good on this title, and it would get cancelled in the DC Implosion, but it’s a fun look at the bad guys as they were at the time.  (The alternate first issue plays up Captain Cold’s would-be ladies’ man trait, which was his main characterization point at the time.)  Recommended to DC Comics fans and fans of the Flash TV series.

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

Four men come to the house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when the man who owns the house, Thomas Carnacki, summons them for dinner.  They ask no questions, as they know Carnacki will wait until his own good time to tell them a tale of his adventures.  And because he is a ghost finder, that tale will be worth waiting for.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was a sailor and physical fitness instructor before taking up writing and becoming best known for his weird tales.  The Carnacki stories were written between 1910 and 1914, when Mr. Hodgson enlisted in the British Army during World War One.  Only six of them were published during his lifetime (he died at Ypers) with the remaining three first appearing in the collected edition in 1947.

Carnacki is very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition of the cerebral detective, examining the evidence with the best scientific methods known to him.  Sometimes the menace turns out to be merely human trickery, sometimes it is truly supernatural, and then again sometimes it’s both!  Other than that, the stories are formulaic–the four friends arrive, everyone has dinner, Carnacki tells his tale, there are a few clarifying questions, and then the guests go home.

Carnacki is interesting as a ghost finder, as he’s terrified of ghosts and supernatural phenomena, and readily admits it, even as he  confronts these phenomena.  It’s suggested in one story that fear makes you more sensitive to the spirit world–someone who knows no terror might not even notice ghosts!  He also uses both eldritch lore and modern science like photography and vacuum tubes to battle the supernatural.

The collection begins with “The Thing Invisible” in which Carnacki investigates a haunted dagger that seems able to strike on its own with deadly force.  This story was also in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries.  It ends with “The Hog”, a tale of sheer horror as a man’s dreams turn out to be a direct conduit to the Outer Monstrosities.  The latter story would be a good source for artists seeking horrific imagery, but becomes overlong with the special effects sequence.

The best story is “The Whistling Room”, a story that starts with a seemingly harmless haunting that becomes much more disturbing by the end as we learn just what exactly the whistling is.  The least effective story is “The Find”, a change of pace that has no supernatural elements even as a distraction.  A second copy of a supposedly unique book has surfaced and Carnacki must learn if it’s genuine.  The case is resolved in a summary to the main suspects, which is summarized for Carnacki’s friends.

The writing is a bit old-fashioned and there’s a bit of genteel sexism.  We learn little of Carnacki’s past, involving him living in a seaside house with his mother as a young man, apparently inspiring his career.  And of the four guests, the only thing we learn is that one of them has studied magical science, apparently in the theoretical model only.

This is a nice little collection of spooky tales, which I would recommend to fans of old-fashioned ghost stories.

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2

Manga Review: Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2 by Jiro Kuwata

To briefly recap:  When the Batman television series was brought to Japan in the 1960s, it was decided to do a manga tie-in using the talents of Jiro Kuwata (creator of 8-Man).  Rather than being based on the TV show directly, Mr. Kuwata was given a bunch of recent issues of the American comics (which were slightly more serious) and based his interpretation on those.  Please see my review of Volume 1.

Batmanga 2

The first story in this second volume is the return of Clayface, a shape-shifting villain who gained his ability from a pool of water in a cave.  The criminal is dismayed to find the cave has been collapsed with explosives, but is eavesdropping when Batman mentions that a scientist took some of the water to analyze it.  He then apparently kills the scientist to get his hands on the transformation fluid and starts a crime wave again.  A great moment is when Batman realizes that the person complaining of toothache is actually Clayface, as the real person wears dentures.

Next is a professional wrestling based story.  Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson witness a match between popular “face” (good guy) wrestler Apache Arrow, and despised “heel” (bad guy) wrestler the Hangman.  Despite the Hangman using illegal moves, he wins the match handily.  Afterwards, Batman and Robin go on patrol.  They spot the Hangman robbing a jewelry store, but before they can catch up, another Hangman appears and defeats the robber!

Turns out that in this continuity, pro wrestling is real, but the Hangman is working an angle anyway.  He and Batman engage in a mask-off match, where the loser has his true face revealed.  Or does he?

The third story (each of these is told in several weekly chapters, by the way) is set at a masquerade carnival that moves from city to city, happening to be in Gotham City this week.  Batman is looking for an escaped convict, which is a trifle more difficult when everyone in the fairgrounds is disguised.  When the Dynamic Duo do catch up with the crook, he’s been murdered.  Some clues are provided by photojournalist and sometime Batman love interest Vicki Vale, the best showing of a female character in the manga.

Next up is “The Mystery of the Outsider.”  In the American comics, this was a plotline that went on for several months as the unseen but insanely powerful Outsider used his uncanny knowledge of Batman and Bruce Wayne to try to kill them.  It’s considerably condensed here, and for the readers there is no mystery.  U.S. readers might be shocked to see Alfred on the phone with Police Chief Gordon, casually mentioning that he’s Batman’s butler.  This is explained later when we learn that in this continuity, Chief Gordon is fully aware of Batman’s double identity.

The storyline loses some of its impact here because this is the first time the person who is secretly the Outsider appears in the manga at all; we’re not as shocked as the original readers would have been.

This volume concludes with a complex tale of a missing scientist, a robbery gang, and the Monster of Gore Bay.  Robin gets to be more of a teenager here, getting overenthused about investigating a sea monster, and dealing with the scientist’s tsundere (ill-tempered on the outside, sweet on the inside) daughter.

The writing is decent enough, remembering that this manga was aimed at elementary school boys, and there are some clever twists.  The art is old-fashioned and looks stiff compared to many modern manga.  Every so often there’s a great splash page where the artist cuts loose.

This volume is primarily for Batman completists, while casual Bat-fans may want to check it out at the library.

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Years ago, Schuyler Jarvis (Louis Jordan) was a young entertainer who fell in love with a woman named Lovey Lynn (Bea Griffith.)  She liked him plenty too, but her mother disapproved because Jarvis was a poor man, and forced Lovey to break off the affair.  Lovey was married to a wealthy gentleman and had a daughter named Honey Carter (also Bea Griffith) while Jarvis married some other woman and had a son named Louis Jarvis (also Louis Jordan.)

Reet, Petite, and Gone

Lovey passed some time back, and Schuyler, now quite wealthy in his own right, is on his deathbed.   He’s determined to marry his bandleader son to Honey, and sets up his will to ensure this by specifying the exact physical dimensions of the woman Louis must marry to inherit the dough.

Crooked lawyer Henry Talbot (Lorenzo Tucker) sees an opportunity to profit and alters the will to make it appear that the required woman matches the description of his secretary Rusty (Vanita Smythe.)  He also heads off Honey and her friend June (June Richmond) at the airport, attempting to get them to fly back to New Orleans.  (June is a savvy woman and keeps the bribe he gives them so the girls can use it as the first month’s rent on an apartment.)

Talbot initially gets away with it because Schuyler passes away before Louis can get back from the radio station he’s performing at.  He’s repulsed by Rusty and wonders if perhaps he can skip the inheritance.  His manager Sam Adams (Milton Woods) reminds him that they’re about to put on a Broadway show, and the money would sure come in handy.  Then the show biz men get an idea.   They’ll scout for another woman with the same dimensions as Rusty but more palatable by claiming it’s a beauty contest/audition for the show.

This doesn’t go so well, apparently Rusty is unique among women.  However, Honey hasn’t been able to find a job and winds up at the Jarvis mansion to audition.   She doesn’t match the altered criteria either, but she’s able to remind Louis of who she is, and the two hit it off well.

Talbot manages to get one of the show’s backers to bail out, now making it absolutely essential for Louis to inherit if he doesn’t want to close the show before opening and become box office poison.  Things are looking pretty dire, and Louis must make his marriage decision before midnight.  At the last moment, Dolph the aged butler (David Bethea) reveals that he’s been holding a trump card….

This is another “race” picture,  where the cast and crew are all black, designed to air in segregated theaters.    This gave actors who normally got stuck with roles as maids and comic relief the chance to shine.   It’s also a musical and as such a showcase for Mr. Jordan and his Tympani Five band.  As such, there are multiple swing numbers, three of them before the plotline even starts!

Ms. Griffith was apparently not a particularly good singer, so the film avoids her breaking into song as much as possible.  Instead, we’re treated to a couple of fine numbers by June Richmond.  (She’d actually have made a better female lead, I think, but was too heavy-set for Hollywood to give her that role.)

The fan service is heavy in this film–the showgirl costumes and bathing suits are at least plot-relevant, but there’s a scene of Ms. Griffith in her underwear when she didn’t need to be.  (Really obvious when Ms. Richmond is in the same scene, fully clothed.)  Mr. Jordan’s taste for fine-looking ladies is treated as being a lovable scamp.  But the next to last song in the movie is a misogynist screed “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman?”, that really jarred when the finale is “If It’s Love You Want, Baby, That;s Me.”

As such, if you are watching this with younger viewers, you might want to discuss the harmful effects of casual misogyny

The Mill Creek edition of this movie cuts off just before the resolution of the plot; the Internet Archive print is complete, but has much worse picture quality.

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