The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows

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blacklizardWritten by Edogawa Rampo — Here, Kurodahan Press has collected together two of Japanese author Edogawa Rampo’s longer mysteries in one book, with an introduction by Mark Schreiber and illustrations in a pulp style by Kawajiri Hiroaki. Rampo, whose real name was Taro Hirai, was born in 1894 and between 1925 and the mid-50s was a prolific writer who came to be acknowledged as a master of Japanese mystery fiction. He cited Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle as two of his influences.

The Black Lizard is the story of a battle between a master criminal and a master detective. Mme Midorikawa is the Queen of the Tokyo underworld – a confident, flamboyant woman who controls the thugs around her as if they were little schoolboys. When she dances naked at her all-night parties, the black lizard tattoo on her arm seems to writhe as if it has a life of its own.

For Mme Midorikawa crime is too easy. To make it a challenge for herself she forewarns her marks that something terrible will happen to them, giving them a chance to prepare and defend themselves. When she writes to wealthy Tokyo jewellery merchant Iwase Shobei warning him that his daughter Sanae will be kidnapped, and the ransom demand will be one of the biggest diamonds ever discovered, The Star of Egypt, Shobei instructs the famous Akechi Kogoro to guard his daughter.

Midorikawa is delighted at the opportunity to pit her wits against the master detective. Their competition begins in Tokyo’s finest hotel and progresses to the high seas before ending in Midorikawa’s terrifying hideout, where her victims are first humiliated and tortured before their corpses are put on permanent display in a kind of grotesque wax work museum.

The second story, Beast in the Shadows, is a tale of obsession. A mystery writer forms a friendship with a married lady who professes to be a fan. As time passes he finds himself falling in love with Oyamada Shizuko but because of societal convention is unable to share his feelings. She confides in him that as a young girl she made a terrible mistake that has come back to haunt her. She had a brief affair with a local boy whose passion for her scared her away.

That boy has grown up to be another mystery writer, the famous recluse Oe Shundei, whose bizarre gruesome stories suggest a damaged psychology in their author. His love for Shizuko has turned to hatred because of her rejection of him and he’s nursed that rage in his heart through all the years that he’s searched for her. Now he has found her and has written to her to taunt her. After she is ruined by the scandal of her earlier affair he plans to kill her. The mystery writer has to use his own deductive skills and his familiarity with his rivals’ stories to save her.

I really didn’t know what to expect going into these books. I’ve read a lot of pulp, but none of it Japanese. In many ways the stories were like their American counterparts – full of twists and turns, action-packed and fast-paced. One striking difference is the eroticism in Rampo’s books. Sado-masochism is central to the Beast in the Shadows and The Black Lizard has, at the least, hints of exhibitionism and voyeurism, dominance and submission.

The writing is highly sophisticated, though. In Beast in the Shadows you might feel the un-named writer who narrates the story is Rampo. In the beginning he distinguishes between two types of mystery writer – the virtuous ones who are interested in solving the crime such as himself, and those like Oe Shundei who are interested in making up gruesome crimes, and are sinister. Throughout the story the narrator works through stories which purport to be those of the fictional character Oe Shundei, trying to figure out what the sinister writer is planning. But it turns out these stories are full of references to other works by Rampo himself. It’s a case 1920s meta-fiction!

With a great cover illustration, an informative introduction and two great pulp stories, Kurodahan Press have put together a stunning book.

Kurodahan Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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