“The Black Lizard” by Edogawa Rampo (published by Penguin Books)

A horror in more ways than one

The 20 paperback books republished this year by Penguin Random House in their Crime and Espionage series were written from 1928 to 1978 by 15 authors from the United Kingdom, United States, Belgium and Japan, all dead now except one, some that we recognised, some that we’d hardly even heard of*, but all welcome for allowing us to revisit old favourites and make new acquaintances.
19. November 2023 6:06

Ten of the 15 writers have one reissue each and the other five have two. These latter include Japan’s Edogawa Rampo, whose “Beast in the Shadows” (1928) was among the first 10 Crime and Espionage books in mid-year. Until then he was a new name at The Budapest Times, so while such a short familiarity hardly qualifies him as an old favourite, that tale certainly stoked enough enthusiasm to go on and read his “The Black Lizard” (1934) in the second 10 this October.

Budapest Times readers may recall that Rampo’s real name was Taro Hirai, born on October 21, 1894 in Nagoya, and the pseudonym is a Japanese transliteration of Edgar Allen Poe’s name, Hirai having been a fan of the US author of “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”. Our article on “Beast in the Shadows” explained, for those who didn’t know (including ourselves), that transliteration is the act, process or result of writing letters or words using the corresponding characters of another alphabet or writing system.

In this second reading of Rampo/Hirai, we start off by discovering that the titular black lizard is a tattoo on the left arm of the Dark Angel, a beautiful lady who dances naked at a nightclub in the Ginza district of the Imperial City, Tokyo. As she gyrates, the tattoo seems to writhe as if it has a life of its own. She is also a vile criminal.

After doing her Jewel Dance – wearing nothing but – she is visited by a “despondent” Jun-chan, who is “depressed” after just killing Kitashima and his slut Sakiko, and stuffing their bodies in the closet in their apartment. If “despondent” and “depressed” seem odd feelings for a murderer, it’s all part of the reader new to Rampo/Hirai quickly becoming aware of a different style in “The Black Lizard” than in a novel by, say, Ambler or Deighton or Le Carré or the other Western writers.

It must be a Japanese thing, understandably, but more so in the peculiar “The Black Lizard” than with the straighter “Beast in the Shadows”. There’s a definite oddness to the plot, the pacing and the writing. But it’s a horror-mystery novel after all, and a mystery can drag you in, even a bad one, and this is particularly bad.

Continuing the tale, the Dark Angel has a ready solution to Jun-chan’s little problem of imminent discovery by the law. In the early hours she takes him and they simply sneak into a room at a university where she knows that the bodies for dissection in anatomy class are kept. She selects a corpse of similar height and musculature to her hapless companion, and they stuff it into a bag with the aim of smashing in its face and planting it somewhere to make it look like Jun-chan has committed suicide, keeping him cop-free.

Is she a spoilt rich woman enjoying idle games, asks Rampo/Hirai? Absolutely. This is going to get a lot stranger yet. Next, the Dark Angel, using the name Mme Midikorawa, is staying at the Keiö hotel, the ritziest in Imperial Tokyo, and she installs the pliable, and newly “dead” Jun-chan in a room next to hers. She gives his name as Yamakawa Kensaku.

I’m a terrible sorceress, a thief and a murderer, she tells him, and you’re my doll, my slave. He willingly concurs. And I’m in the hotel because so is the leading jewel merchant of Osaka,  Iwase Shōbei of Iwase Trading, and I’m going to kidnap his daughter, Sanae, who’s here with him, and use her as bait to get hold of the largest diamond in Japan, the Star of Egypt.

Just a little more of the plot  – a minor problem for the Dark Angel is that Dad Shōbei has hired private detective Akechi Kogorō to guard Sanae. However, this merely intoxicates the excitable lady, who doesn’t like stealing anything without giving warning first. It was her sending several threatening kidnap notes to her target that led to Kogorō being brought in.

The Dark Angel has a large wood-ribbed trunk delivered to her room in preparation for the abduction, and, ever the exhibitionist, she strips bare in front of a startled Jun-chan and folds herself into the trunk to demonstrate how it will contain the naked and drugged Sanae. Rampo/Hirai has a reputation for eroticism, and presumably the nudity titllated mid-20th-century Japanese readers.

Later, in the hotel lounge, the audacious lady ingratiates herself with Kogorō, who happens to be the most famous detective of the age, and tells him she has heard about the plot. She talks him into a ridiculous  gamble – all her jewels for him if the kidnap doesn’t succeed, or he would give up his profession if it does. “Ha, ha, ha,” they laugh, sealing the deal.

By now Western readers may be shaking their heads a bit but also can be reassuring themselves that experiencing a bit of Japanese noir, if that’s what this is, is, well, experiencing a bit of Japanese noir. And Rampo/Hirai himself is half-apologetic, addressing the reader directly – ”Now perhaps readers will think that the author has committed a major bungle here. They might object that because Mme Midorikawa had disguised herself as Sanae and was sleeping in the bed beside Iwase, it would make absolutely no sense for the same Mme Midorikawa to be coming into the room from the corridor.” (We omitted this part of the plot). “But the author has not made a mistake. Both are correct. And this is the only Mme Midorikawa in existence. What this all means will become clear as our story unfolds,” Rampo/Hirai reassures anyone who may be starting to wonder.

And then there’s “As mentioned in the previous chapter… ” and then later, “Readers will doubtless recall a chapter earlier in our tale… ” Over-explanation and explanations in brackets guide readers. Exclamation marks pop up! ”Now, dear readers, it is time for the author to change the scene… ” This stuff is annoying, and we don’t blame the translator.

Sometimes it reads more like it’s intended for a young adult readership, teenagers. Such as this – “With her hands still tied behind her back and her mouth gagged, Sanae also wore a thick blindfold. No doubt these precautions were designed to prevent her from discovering the way to the Black Lizard’s hideout.” No doubt!

At one stage, “Overcome for a moment by the comicality of it… ” the Dark Lady (disguised ridiculously as a man to escape the hotel and fooling an on-alert detective) lets out a laugh. So do we. ”What a bizarre conversation,” she says another time, and we know how she felt.

Disguises. An underground lair with a human zoo. “The Black Lizard” is very poor, childish even, easily the weakest of the 16 Penguin Crime and Espionage books we have read, but we do have the consolation of knowing that we’ve experienced a bit of early Japanese noir, broadening our horizons. Trouble is, that was ”Beast in the Shadows”, not here.


*”Some that you recognise, some that you’ve hardly even heard of” – ”Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks, written by Ray Davies.

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