The Black Lizard / Beast in the Shadows
by Edogawa Rampo
translated from the Japanese
by Ian Hughes
The stories were first published
respectively in 1934 and 1928
Read for The Classics Club
I recently discovered the Japanese Mystery Book Club on Discord (check here). We were supposed to read The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows a few weeks ago, and share on Instagram Stories.
That was a total debacle for me, I still don’t understand how you can share things on Stories (instead of in the Feed), as I can’t seem to be able to do a search with hashtags in Stories). So I have no idea what the others thought about the book.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter, I’m glad it gave me the opportunity to discover a classic Japanese author I didn’t know yet. And a really great one!
First a note on the author (1894-1965), “the acknowledged grand master of Japan’s golden age of crime and mystery fiction” according to his profile in this edition. The cleverness of his nom de plume totally points to the quirkiness and smart elements I found in these two novelettes. Indeed he transformed his name Hirai Taro into Edogawa Rampo (the French call him Ranpo, and it seems to be more faithful to the Japanese sign. See here for Rampo vs. Ranpo), the closest to Edgar Allan Poe with Japanese sounds!
Alas, not much has been translated in European language, though he apparently wrote 67 novels and 76 short stories!
I recommend this edition, with the excellent introduction by Mark Schreiber (on Rampo’s background, and a lot of data and references on classic mysteries), and the stupendous translation by Ian Hughes. I can’t read Japanese, but there was such a flow to the text!
The Black Lizard (first published in 1934)
opens at a party on Christmas Eve in “Ginza, the largest and most prosperous part of the Imperial City”. Then we zoom in on a mysterious woman dressed all in black, with a black lizard tattooed on her left arm. She meets a young man, Jun-chan, another shady character. As he asks her for money to get him out of trouble after something he has done, she comes up with a plan to keep him safe. But at what price?
The adventures that follow are so cleverly invented, with tons of twists and turns. It is like Poe, Arsène Lupin (for the disguises – the heroine is actually even referred to as “the female Arsène Lupin” in chapter 11), and Sherlock Holmes meet Keigo Igashino (especially in The Devotion of Suspect X). With the exception that the mastermind here is a redoubtable woman.
The whole story becomes a battle of the minds between her and Detective Akechi Kogoro (Rampo wrote many stories about him). And when you think one has lost, wait until the next page!!
The style is unusual for readers today, with the author often addressing directly the reader:
Dear readers, please record the private-eye’s words somewhere in your memory. Will he be able to keep his promise? Or will he fail yet again?
Or with sentences like: “the reader already knows”, or “Without a doubt astute readers will easily discern the close relationship between our case and…”
So the author is at the same time revealing details to his readers, while leading them astray.
As a plus, the ambiance is superbly described, with a gothic flavor to it.
There’s even a cool scene on Tsutenkaku (Osaka Tower, built in 1915)!
Beast in the Shadows (first published in 1928)
displays all the same qualities, with an added touch of noir.
Here’s also a battle of the minds, this time between two detective novelists, representing two categories: “the criminal sort, whose only interest is in the crime” and “the detective type, an author of very sound character whose only interest is in the intellectual process of detection”.
And the focus is the strange death of a certain Oyamada.
A woman thinks she has escaped “from the obsessive attentions of the unpleasant Hirata Ichiro”, after moving to another city. But then she starts receiving threats by mail…
This was an incredible plot, really impossible to guess!
Both stories feature very crafty women, with so many surprises in the plot, and great atmospheric details. I plan to read Rampo’s earlier stories.
VERDICT: Clever plots, crafty women, tons of twists, superb atmospheric details: the Japanese classic mystery genre at its best.