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):

Manga Review: Akuma no Riddle Volume 1

Manga Review: Akuma no Riddle Volume 1 story by Yun Kouga, art by Sunao Minakata

Azuma Tokaku is the star student at  Private Academy 17, secretly a school for assassins.  As such, she’s being temporarily transferred to Myojo Private School, to participate in Class Black.  Supposedly, Class Black is a game disguised as an ordinary homeroom class–twelve assassins compete to see which one of them can  kill the thirteenth student.

Akuma no Riddle Volume 1

The target is Haru Ichinose, a bubbly girl who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.  But we soon have hints that her past is dark indeed, and she’s much harder to kill than she appears.  Azuma begins to have second thoughts about her mission…perhaps she should be protecting Haru instead?

This manga (“Devil’s Riddle”) has been adapted into an anime series as well.  (I am told the anime compresses the series and cuts out several subplots.)  The author’s notes mention a “social game” but it’s not clear if this series was adapted from that or vice-versa.

In the tradition of dystopian YA, it is readily apparent that the teenage assassins have not been told the entire truth about what’s going on, and some of what the adults have led them to believe is completely false.   Azuma’s teacher at Private Academy 17 tells the reader as much, and looks forward to her figuring that out.  Most of the characters have very dark backstories, most only hinted at in this volume.  (Haru’s body is covered in nasty scars, and “Tokaku” means “rabbit’s horn”, aka “a thing that does not exist” like a jackalope.)

Most of the first volume is given over to brief introductions to the characters; there are thirteen girls in Class Black, a homeroom teacher who appears to be oblivious to what’s really going on, Azuma’s teacher, and the mysterious person who set up Class Black.  Azuma and Haru get the most characterization as “trying hard to be an emotionless professional” and “overly cute girl who refers to herself in the third person.”

The art is decent but relies heavily on hairstyles and uniforms to distinguish the characters.  There’s a couple of fanservicey scenes in aid of the plotline.

The book’s primary weakness from my point of view is that it seems overly calculated.  Each of the young women is designed to fit into a particular “appeal category” (the big-breasted one, the one with glasses, the one that looks underage, etc.) and I would not be surprised if this was originally published in a magazine with a primarily male reader demographic.  Also, the premise kind of unsuspends my disbelief.  Yes, I can accept for the sake of the concept one small private school that trains assassins, but here we have twelve teenage girls who come from twelve different schools and are all trained assassins.  Plus we’re given to understand that Class Black has happened at least twice before without the outside world noticing.

I do not think I will be picking up a second volume, but if teenage female assassins are your thing, and the plausibility issues aren’t a dealbreaker for you, you might enjoy this.

Manga Review: Case Closed Volume 56

Manga Review: Case Closed Volume 56 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap for newer readers:  Shinichi Kudou (“Jimmy” in the US version) is a teen genius detective.  He runs afoul of a mysterious criminal organization, but their assassination attempt instead causes him to shrink to a childlike appearance.  To conceal his survival from the organization, Shinichi poses as Conan Edogawa, ward of inept private detective Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his teenage daughter Ran (Rachel) who happens to be Shinichi’s love interest.  Conan continues to solve crimes, though it’s harder to get people to listen to a small kid.  See my previous review for more.

Case Closed Vol. 56

The volume to hand is #56.  The first story is “Engagement Ring?!” which guest stars Detectives Sato and Takagi, and their slow-moving romance subplot.  Sato is suddenly wearing a gold ring on her left hand’s ring finger, and Takagi wasn’t the one who gave it to her.  The crime this time is the suicide (or is it?) of a mystery writer that Kogoro was supposed to participate in an interview with.  That writer also had a ring that turns out to be an important clue.  The case is also complicated in that Sato is one of the few police officers who’s noticed that “Sleeping Mouri” doesn’t move his lips when he gives the real solution, so Conan must figure out other ways to lead the police to the answer.

Next up is “The Witch Legend Mystery” which is loosely based on the story of a lost traveler who seeks shelter with a kindly old woman overnight.  He wakes up in the middle of the night due to an odd sound, peeks into the next room, and sees that the woman is actually an onibaba (anthropophagous demon granny) who is sharpening a knife in preparation for butchering him.

In this case, both the Detective Kids with Doctor Agasa, and two “hosts” and their client separately find themselves stranded near a mountain hut, and reluctantly taken in by the scary-looking old woman who lives there.  (A “host” is a handsome man who entertains women at a nightclub, getting them to buy drinks and expensive trinkets for them.)  The client winds up dead from a slit throat.  Was it the old woman, who one of the children saw sharpening a knife in the dead of night, or someone else?

The remainder of the volume is a series of connected stories that deal with the Eisuke Hondo subplot.  This mysterious youth is clumsy, but perceptive, and seems to be connected to the supposed missing (actually comatose) Rena Mizunashi, newscaster and associate of the Black Organization.   Conan’s Osakan counterpart Heiji Hattori (Harley) has discovered someone who may have know Eisuke’s father; also there’s only one known photograph of the man.  But when Conan, Doctor Agasa, and Ai (English name Anita, another survivor of childification) go to check that photo–it’s missing!

That problem resolved, Conan has some new clues.  Then Ran suggests visiting a friend of the Mouri family who is a huge Rena fan, to see if Eisuke really is her brother, as the photographs would suggest.  Conan and Sonoko (Serena) tag along, and Conan solves a bank transfer scam case on the way.  But news footage of Rena only confuses the issue–she apparently can’t be Eisuke’s sister, and the boy’s motives are still murky.

It’s nice to get some plot movement, so this is one of the volumes to pick up if you’re most interested in the “myth arc.’  Otherwise, it’s got a couple of decent mysteries that are typical for the series.

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