Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Black-Haired Kerry and the Casebook of Romantic Troubles
In the 1890s, a young noblewoman, disgusted by the lack of rights for women and the lower classes, cuts off her hair and sets herself up as a private detective specializing in such cases. Joined by her friend Liz and later by handsome working-class lawyer Jutaro Hohen, Kerry disentangles the mysteries of those who hire her – and maybe even those of her heart.
There's something odd about Black-Haired Kerry and the Casebook of Romantic Troubles, and it's not necessarily the plot. Rather it's the way it's presented: of the three volumes, one has no number and the other two are labeled one and two. However, the unnumbered volume is in fact book one, making the others actually volumes two and three, and now that this has been explained, you'll have an easier time getting into the series than I did initially. The reason behind this seems to be that Yuriko Matsukawa, who has been creating manga professionally since 1989, wrote the first story in the series very early in her career. When it was later picked up for digital and then print publication, she was given the chance to keep going with Kerry's story, so volumes two and three date to 2013 rather than sometime in the early 1990s (judging by the art). Whatever the reason, it's still a barrier to entry that the series doesn't need.
That's a shame, because, while not high art or anything approaching that designation, Black-Haired Kerry and the Casebook of Romantic Troubles is a nice light read. In some ways it resembles a fluffier version of Moriarty the Patriot – Kerry, born Lady Caroline Westvine, hates the British class system that oppresses the lower classes and renders women non-human in terms of their rights, so she flees her home and sets herself up as a male private detective. As we learn in the middle volume, she does this partly because her elder brother's death has left her parents without an heir since she as a woman can't inherit the family title, and she's hurt that her parents seem to be acting as if they have no children left rather than a daughter. Kerry initially cuts off her hair and dresses as a man in order to try to take her brother's place; when that doesn't work, she strikes out on her own to try and change a world she views as unfairly biased in favor of the rich and male.
Of all of the (many) plot threads running through this series, the suffragist one is the most interesting. It's clear that Kerry is speaking for her creator to a degree, because the statements about the rights of women are far more strongly and coherently worded than almost anything else in the story. Kerry doesn't hate men, but she does resent the way they're able to control her life, and her relationship with Jutaro is largely based on the fact that they respect each other; he doesn't want to make her into a shining example of Victorian femininity, and she knows he's good at his job and worth employing no matter what his name and features say about his mixed-race heritage. (Needless to say, many of those who can't see past those things damn Jutaro as “foreign” even though he was apparently raised in England.) Even when the romance plot winds up with the expected happy ending, Kerry remains true to her belief that she's just as worthy as any man, and being in a romantic relationship doesn't change that – once again something that Jutaro respects.
The main barrier to this romantic resolution is the other major theme of the series: that there's no merit in or need for class distinctions. As the daughter of an earl, Kerry is considered above Jutaro, a mixed-race working-class lawyer, something that she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge. Jutaro doesn't want to see it that way, but he's too used to the way the British treat him to be instantly comfortable with his feelings for Kerry or hers for him, and it isn't until her arranged fiancé sticks his nose in that we see any real change in Jutaro's feelings on the subject. But the thread of inter-class relations winds through the entire series, as many, if not most, of the cases Kerry takes on involve inter-class romances or situations where the nobles feel entitled to something simply because of their accident of birth and those “beneath” them are willing to fight back.
All of that said, it can at times be tricky to pick these things out or to follow the plot, because all three volumes take the long way to resolution. That makes the story almost delightfully convoluted – yes, the writing can be a mess, but the melodramatic goofiness is clearly well-meant and it's still fun to read. At least some of this may also be attributed to the translation, which is definitely rougher than other efforts by S. B. Creative, who also localized Amber Silhouette and The Legend of the Rainbow by Chieko Hara, as well as most of the Harlequin manga volumes and romance comics. The font choice for the speech bubbles is also kind of odd and definitely not as easy to read as it should be; presumably they were going for something that looked a bit more like handwriting, but it definitely backfired. That the books are only $6 each makes these things marginally less painful, but they're still not great in an officially released book, cheap or otherwise.
The art is certainly an interesting piece of the story, if only because there's such a drastic difference between the first book and the two that come after it. (Oddly the very last chapter of the story, the wedding, is an extra in the first book.) The polish of the second two volumes stands starkly against the much more stylized, messy art of the first, and it's interesting to see Matsukawa grow more skilled and comfortable with her character designs. Interestingly enough the clothing is really only accurate to the late 1890s in the middle volume, but since the translation is never period-appropriate, it somehow feels less important than it ought to.
With its jumpy plot (one bit involving “butler” – he's a footman – Harold is completely swept under the rug), less than stellar translation, and odd arrangement, Black-Haired Kerry and the Casebook of Romantic Troubles shouldn't be as entertaining as it is. But as a light detective caper with a few solid points about the Victorian class system and women's rights, it's surprisingly a ton of melodramatic fun. You have to turn off your brain to read it, but somehow it still manages to be a fluffy bit of entertainment to while away a rainy day.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Some good plot points about rights, Kerry and Jutaro's relationship is as much founded on respect as love.
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