“A Man Lay Dead” (1993) is the very first episode of the first season of the BBC’s “Inspector Alleyn Mysteries” series, based on the Ngaio Marsh books and starring Patrick Malahide as the eponymous character. The role was recast after Simon Williams played the detective in a pilot episode, “Artists in Crime” (1990). For various reasons, I’m firmly of the opinion that this was a very good thing. Sorry, Mr. Williams! In many ways, I wish they’d re-shot the pilot with Malahide instead of Williams, because it sets up some of the relationships we already see at play when “A Man Lay Dead” opens, and the two men approached the role in very different ways. But enough of such musings.
Synopsis and spoilers follow, or scroll down to view the gallery.
A Stolen Chalice and a Murder
The show begins with a mysterious monk being tailed by a mysterious woman into a cloisterish-looking building which we later find out is a convent. The monk employs lock-picking skills to get into the chapel, where he smashes a glass case in order to nick a large, silver chalice. He doesn’t get to enjoy his ill-gotten booty for long, though; the mysterious woman lays him out with a blow to the neck and makes off with the chalice.
We next see Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn going through huge stack of paperwork, though it’s obvious he has other things on his mind. He’s diligently trying to get through it all so he can spend the weekend with Agatha Troy (Belinda Lang), an artist and his maybe-but-not-quite-yet girlfriend, at her uncle’s for her birthday. In a subtle but lovely touch, he tears up a note he’s written for her gift with wincing dissatisfaction. When his phone rings, he knows it’s likely to mean more work. He attempts to dodge the call by having D.S. Bailey (Tim Dutton) say he’s already left, but that doesn’t wash when it’s Assistant Commissioner Connors (Leslie Schofield) who wants you.
Alleyn is hauled into the Assistant Commissioner’s office and ordered to investigate a murdered man, clad in monk’s robes, who was found in a convent. The murder coincides with the theft of a large, valuable silver chalice which I’ll call Maguffin #1 (because that’s what it is). The chalice is one of many recently stolen rare objects and artworks. Very Important Persons are breathing down the Assistant Commissioner’s neck to see that the thefts are solved, so he says he’s putting his “best team” on it. Alleyn attempts to put off the investigation until the following Monday, but the Commissioner reveals that he’s already called in Inspector “Br’er” Fox (William Simons) from his weekend off. Alleyn apologizes to Fox for his weekend being ruined, but Fox is (as usual) stoic about it. They depart to begin the investigation.
Alleyn’s first order of business, however, is to visit Troy at her uncle Sir Hubert’s (Julian Glover) home, conveniently near the convent. She already suspects something’s up because he’s wearing his “serious suit” (a very nice double-breasted pinstripe, by the way), and she’s right. Alleyn apologizes for standing her up (something he does a lot), they exchange an awkward handshake (it is 1946, after all), and he gives her her birthday gift before leaving.
Investigating the Scene of the Crime
Investigation at the convent yields a few clues: the chalice was donated anonymously and fairly recently; no records or pictures of it exist; the victim’s neck was broken by a blow to the side of his neck by a human hand; and the victim’s hand was injured by broken glass even though he was equipped with a small hammer to break into the chalice’s case. The victim is later identified as Corporal Albert Billings (Martin Carroll) who, by odd coincidence, served under Sir Hubert during World War II. Under Alleyn’s questioning, Sir Hubert says he can’t remember the man since he’s served with so many. By another odd coincidence, part of Sir Hubert’s wartime duties involved safeguarding and repatriating art treasures in danger of being lost, stolen, or damaged by friendly or enemy forces during the conflict. He is also an avid collector of such antique objects and rare weaponry. The nuns are not of much assistance to Alleyn either, since a condition of the chalice’s donation was that it remain strictly anonymous.
Meanwhile at Uncle Sir Hubert’s (or is that Sir Uncle Hubert’s?), Troy has been passing time by sketching away in her new sketchbook, Alleyn’s present to her. She has also been cooped up with a lot of people who don’t seem to like each other much, or who like each other too much. Her friend Rosamund Grant (Susan Woolridge) believes her engagement to Charles Rankin (Robert Reynolds) is imminent, but Troy sees and overhears enough to realize that Rankin is also carrying on an affair with Marjorie Wilde (Clare Higgins). Marjorie’s husband Arthur (David Haig) seems completely unaware, though he doesn’t get along with Rankin very well. Dr. Hans Hoffner (Nickolas Grace), another guest, is an expert in antiquities who works for Sir Hubert. Nigel Bathgate (Matthew Lloyd-Davies) is the youngest guest and owes Rankin for various debts. Rankin also manages to incur Sir Hubert’s enmity by waving a jeweled reliquary dagger (stolen by Billings and intercepted by Rankin) under his nose. It’s just the sort of item Sir Hubert loves to collect, and Rankin sarcastically bequeaths it to Sir Hubert. Such are the guests gathered for a jolly weekend. What could possibly go wrong?
A Game of “Murder” and Another Murder
At Sir Hubert’s suggestion, the group decides to play “Murder” one night, with one guest secretly designated to be the “murderer”, who then chooses a “victim” as the others try to guess his or her identity. There is much nervous skittering about as the guests try to avoid being alone with each other. The results are about what you’d expect – the lights are mysteriously extinguished and when they come back up, Rankin has been stabbed in the back with the reliquary dagger, or Maguffin #2. Everyone avows innocence. Good thing there’s a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard in the near vicinity.
Alleyn is delighted (not) to discover he now has two murders on his hands. He arrives at Sir Hubert’s to investigate, after first making sure that Troy is all right. However, the situation is far from ideal; the body has been moved, some of the evidence cleaned up, and the guests (even Troy) are uncooperative. In addition, Alleyn is incredulous to discover the guests were playing at “Murder” when the murder was committed. He and Fox question the guests and begin to uncover bits and pieces of evidence, some of which have survived attempts at destruction. He is also delighted to discover what seems to be a Big Book of Incriminating Evidence hidden under Hoffner’s mattress; it lists not only the chalice but hundreds of other artworks which have gone missing over the past few years.
Alleyn puts the pieces together, linking the chalice to Sir Hubert, Sir Hubert to Hoffner, and using Troy’s sketches, Hoffner to Dieter Krantz (Michael Feast), a shady dealer in antiquities. Alleyn also convincingly pretends to be flattered when he sees Troy’s sketch of himself. He must be pretending, because the sketch is really quite awful (see the gallery if you don’t believe me). Fortunately, her sketch of Krantz is a bit better. Alleyn keeps running into roadblocks, though. There is a marvelous scene where he just barely contains his temper at being stonewalled by Sir Hubert; it’s rare to see him so angry. He also senses that Troy’s loyalties are being pulled in different directions and she isn’t revealing all she knows. However, with the unfair aid of some incredibly appealing puppy-dog eyes (see the gallery if you don’t believe me), Alleyn persuades Troy to help him with the guests and gather more evidence.
Alleyn’s efforts culminate in a meeting at Krantz’ London home, where he carries out a one-man sting operation. He is only slightly surprised to find Hoffner there as well. Alleyn pretends to be a “poor, corrupt police official” (apologies to Captain Renault in “Casablanca”) interested in exchanging Maguffin #2 for Maguffin #1. He convincingly plays it cool, gaining Krantz’ trust. Krantz reveals that Maguffin #1 is in his possession, proving he’s Billings’ murderer (remember Billings?). Just to cement it, Krantz admits to it as well. However, Alleyn also finds that Hoffner’s motives are not quite so clear-cut and he’s actually at odds with Krantz; he seems to be more interested in repatriating the artworks to their countries of origin, whereas Krantz is only interested in their monetary value. Krantz’ greed overtakes his distrust of Alleyn and he’s ready to deal.
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Alleyn, he’s been tailed to Krantz’ apartment by a suspicious Bathgate. Bathgate isn’t very good at spying or sneaking and is seized by Krantz’ butler, blowing Alleyn’s cover. Fisticuffs ensue! Krantz pulls a gun and Hoffner leaps in front of Alleyn, taking a bullet meant for him. More fisticuffs and Krantz is disarmed and hauled off to jail. It’s worth noting that Alleyn is not mussed in the slightest by the altercations. Murder #1 is solved, on to #2.
Recreating a Murder Scene
Back at Sir Hubert’s, after a few more pieces of evidence come to light (one bit is held out almost to the last by Troy, much to Alleyn’s disappointment – did the puppy-dog eyes not work??), Alleyn decides to re-create of the night of the murder with all the guests present. Bathgate volunteers to run through Alleyn’s scenario but can’t complete it in the time allotted. Alleyn then asks Arthur Wilde to run through it again with modifications – modifications plainly indicating that Alleyn has determined Wilde to be the murderer, motivated by jealousy over his wife’s affair. Wilde slides down a bannister (seriously – it’s integral to the plot) and attacks Alleyn with the dagger. Fisticuffs ensue! Alleyn disarms Wilde, remains unmussed, and solves murder #2.
As a rather cute denouement, Alleyn sees Troy off and asks for a rain-check on their date, saying perhaps they could try again. She says yes – he doesn’t even have to deploy the puppy-dog eyes this time – which pleases him a great deal; he watches her disreputable blue van drive away, then does a strut back to his own car.
This was a fun episode and a great introduction to the Inspector Alleyn series (sorry, Mr. Williams!). It has great character interaction and chemistry, touches of humour, enjoyable dialogue, beautiful cars, and a simply gorgeous 1940s wardrobe for Malahide that he wears extremely well. Highly recommended. For more on Alleyn, view our blog post on him!
Tangential note: There really were military groups devoted to protecting antiquities and historical sites during World War II, called the “Monuments Men“. These groups were made up of curators, artists, historians, archaeologists, draftsmen, and others with artistic or historical training. They were given military rank and they were very often at or ahead of the front lines with little support. After the war, their purpose was to find and repatriate stolen artworks to their countries of origin. However, Sir Hubert seems to have taken a far less altruistic approach to the job. 😉