“Beast in the Shadows” by Edogawa Rampo (published by Penguin Books)

Mystery and imagination at play again

Considerations arise when reading a 1928 Japanese crime novel. On the plus side, we stand to learn something of a unique culture in pre-global village days. But we are in the hands of a translator – will any of the author’s style be lost? Finally, this particular author is linked with Edgar Alan Poe, who is not someone we particularly like to read.
29. October 2023 6:29

In fact, as we didn’t know the name Edogawa Rampo before, receipt of this book led us to uncover some background, and it revealed that this is a pen name for Tarō Hirai (1894-1965). Further, Hirai supposedly spearheaded mystery fiction in Japan, and his pseudonym derives directly from that country’s pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Poe was Hirai’s literary idol, and the pen name is a rough Japanese transliteration of Edgar Alan Poe. We needed a dictionary to inform us that transliteration is the act, process or result of writing letters or words using the corresponding characters of another alphabet or writing system.

One commentator we read says Hirai was “generally viewed as the greatest of all Japanese suspense and mystery authors… a prolific novelist and short story writer… much influenced by writers such as Conan Doyle, Chesterton and Wells”. (No mention of Poe here.)

Another crime fiction lover judges “Beast in the Shadows” as assuredly pulp, in many ways like its American counterparts – full of twists and turns, action-packed and fast-paced. Hirai/Rampo’s writing is described as highly sophisticated, One striking difference is the eroticism, with sado-masochism central to Rampo’s tale.

As for the Poe thing, we said he is not a favourite author of ours. His “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” may have cachet but we don’t always find them easy to read. Poe has undeniable mastery of words while also often being verbose and abstruse, turning in some descriptions and sentences of Dickensian proportions.

Not to worry with “Beast in the Shadows”, which finds writer and translator (Ian Hughes) motoring along nicely together, and concisely at a shade under 100 pages.

The mystery thriller genre is known in Japan as “honkaku”, which emerged there in the 1920s. The word translates as “orthodox”, and refers to the crafting of fiendishly clever and complex puzzle scenarios – such as a murder in a locked bedroom – that can only be solved through logical deduction.

Writer Haruta Yoshitame is credited with defining honkaku, and does so as “a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning”. So such stories have more in common with chess than some modern thrillers, as the latter can be filled with surprise twists and sudden reveals. (But we thought ~Beast in the Shadows was ~full of twists and turns~. Oh well, never mind. A good mystery is a good mystery.),

In honkaku, it is said, everything is transparent: no villains suddenly appear in the last chapter, no key clues are withheld until the final page. These writers were scrupulous about “playing fair”, so clues and suspects were woven through the plot, giving the reader a fair chance of solving the mystery before the detective does. You have the clues to solve the crime.

The very first honkaku story is usually attributed to Tarō Hirai and his “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” in 1923. In “Beast in the Shadows” from 1928 there is no prominent detective. Rather, a crime novelist meets a married woman who tells him about another crime novelist, her ex-lover, who’s been sending her threatening letters and stalking her. The woman likes sex and wasn’t a virgin when she later married without confessing her earlier passionate activities, so this fear of exposure to her husband stops her doing the obvious thing and going to the police.

In actual fact, perhaps she needn’t have worried too much because her husband too likes a good romp and they share a liking for a riding whip, the occasional mention of which perhaps titillated readers in 1928 Japan.

When she turns to the crime novelist for help, her husband is bizarrely murdered, found wearing a strange wig and floating naked in the river at Azumabashi bridge under a hole-in-the-floor toilet. The novelist soon becomes her new secret lover and he is initiated into a taste of the whip too (and rather likes it: ~troubling appetites flamed up in me with a frightening force, as if oil had been poured on fire.”). Still, the sex is presented in a low-key fashion by Rampo and the hunt for the stalker is paramount.

The wham-bam approach of the novel, more a novella, doesn’t offer us much Japaneseness of former times. There are brief mentions of major economic upheavals taking place, tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, a ninja technique, a Buddhist ceremony for the departed and altar with its mortuary tablet and incense, jumbled back streets of Asakusa, ~headless human” freak shows, the beaming god Daikoku, a no-longer-used old-fashioned poultice for quelling tooth pain, and the marumage traditional hairstyle worn by married women.

About the only real evocation we get is the pleasing ferry ride on the Sumida River between the Kototoi and Shirahige bridges, with its old-time rural atmosphere conjured up by the traders who brought picture books and toys on board.

So, the ex-lover, a crime novelist, is stalking the wife. The woman calls in another crime novelist to find the first crime novelist and get him to stop. But does the first crime novelist actually exist, because he has a very shadowy background. Then, who killed her husband? Was it actually the wife, and has she been posing as the first crime novelist? There`s a suicide. Did the second crime novelist screw up badly and make a wrong accusation after being fooled by the wife/widow/lover? Phew. Are they twists and turns, or not?.

In mid-year Penguin published 10 vintage Crime and Espionage classics. They were “Beast in the Shadows”, “Journey into Fear” by Eric Ambler (1940), “In a Lonely Place” by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947), “The Franchise Affair“ by Josephine Tey (1948), “The Drowning Pool“by Ross Macdonald (1950), “The Night of the Hunter“ by Davis Grubb (1953), “Maigret and the Headless Corpse“ by Georges Simenon (1955), “Call for the Dead“ by John le Carré (1961), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” by Chester Himes (1965) and “SS-GB” by Len Deighton (1978).

Another 10 have followed this October, and five of the authors from the first 10 are seen again. These are Georges Simenon with “Maigret’s Revolver”(1952), John le Carré with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1974), Eric Ambler with “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1939), Josephine Tey with “Brat Farrar” (1949) and Edogawa Rampo with “The Black Lizard” (1934)..

Oddly, Raymond Chandler”s contribution is a two-books-in-one with “The Big Sleep” (1939) and “Farewell, My Lovely” (1940). This seems strange that his is the only one of the 20 books to be a doubler, when his two novels are both a standard length. If anyone might have had two slim volumes in one book to bump up the value, it could have been Simenon or Rampo.

That aside, the other four in the second tranche are Dick Lochte with “Sleeping Dog” (1985), Anthony Price with “Other Paths to Glory” (1974), Michael Gilbert with “Game Without Rules” (1967) and C.S. Forester with “Payment Deferred” (1926).

The question at the moment is, after reading “Beast in the Shadows” would we give Edogawa Rampo another go with “The Black Lizard”? And the answer is, yes, for sure.

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