The Golden Age of Detective Fiction (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) is a much revered and even more referenced era for all lovers of detective and mystery fiction. Although the writers whose seminal works we identify with the Golden Age are predominantly Anglophone or European (Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon etc), this flourishing of detective fiction took place even outside these continents, reaching as far as East Asia.
Edogawa Rampo was one of the most influential writers in early 20th century Japan, as his works helped establish the detective and mystery genre in modern Japanese literature. With a pseudonym that is basically inspired by the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, Rampo developed what is frequently referenced as the “Japanese gothic mystery”, managing to introduce the Western elements of mystery fiction to the Japanese audience, while adding an inherently Japanese flavour.
Published in 2006 by Kurodahan Press and translated by Ian Hughes, the tome I am writing about today features two of Rampo’s novellas, “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows”, as well as a very enlightening introduction by Mark Schreiber that helps even those readers who are unfamiliar become acquainted with this era of Japanese mystery fiction.
“The Black Lizard” is the longest of the two novellas (174 pages), and it uses many familiar tropes of the genre. The Black Lizard of the title is none other than our female criminal (it is revealed in the very first chapter, so this is hardly a spoiler), a femme fatale who stirs a lot of trouble for our seemingly clueless male detective. While the story starts off with the talk of abduction of a young heiress, characters disguising themselves oh so successfully and fooling everyone around them, as well as many other familiar plot devices and tropes, it’s not long before it takes a rather gruesome turn. I will not go into more details here, but I’m sure readers who are expecting an Agatha Christie type of story will be wildly surprised by the grim and macabre turn of events.
As a novella, “The Black Lizard” comprises 29 short chapters (most are less than 10 pages), while there are some pages interspersed with drawings of certain scenes and characters. Rampo’s writing style in this novella might seem a bit peculiar and outdated to most readers, since he tends to address the reader quite often and provide explanations as to what has taken place in the story. This reminded me a little of the mystery novels I used to read as a child (Enid Blyton etc.), although Rampo’s content is far from appropriate for children.
The second novella, “Beast in the Shadows” was my personal favourite out of the two. Consisting of merely 12 chapters and 102 pages, our protagonist turns into a detective as he tries to solve the mystery of a stalker that harasses his recently widowed love interest. Rampo isn’t afraid to delve deep into the psychology of his characters and bring even their darkest side into light, and that is what makes “Beast in the Shadows” so engrossing, in my opinion.
As an avid fan of mystery/detective/crime fiction, I was delighted that I finally got the chance to read more of Japan’s leading writer of this genre. It’s always very fascinating to me to see how certain genres, themes or tropes that are familiar to us in a certain way are employed and even subverted by other cultures. Even if you end up not finding yourself mesmerised by Rampo’s writing style, I believe both “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows” are very worth your time, even if just to become acquainted with the origins if I may say of the Japanese mystery genre.
Have you read these novellas or any other work by Edogawa Rampo? Who is your favourite Golden Age of Detective Fiction writer? Let me know in the comments below 🙂
Many, many thanks to Kurodahan Press for providing me with a copy of this book.