The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows: Review
Hirai Tarō (1894-1965) adopted the pseudonym Edogawa Rampo because it sounded like a Japanese mispronunciation of "Edgar Allan Poe" and he was ambitious to be a writer of detective fiction. He was not the first Japanese writer to build a career in that genre, but he was a member of the first generation that was able to grow up reading crime fiction eclectically. Poe's detective stories were first translated in Japanese in 1887, and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories began to appear there in 1899. Hirai's mother was a fan of the writer and translator Kuroiwa Ruiko, who adapted early French mysteries by such writers as Emile Gaboriau. By the time Hirai began writing in the 1920s there was a crime fiction magazine, Shin Seinen, to serve as a convenient marketplace. He continued to produce work in the genre for forty years, under various different influences.
Although several of Rampo's short stories have been translated previously, these are the first of his novels to have been rendered into English. Beast in the Shadows, was serialized in Shin Seinen in 1928. The original publication of The Black Lizard is not indicated, but it belongs to a series featuring the detective Akechi Kogoro, one of whose other exploits is mentioned in Mark Schreiber's introduction as having appeared in 1936, and its echoes of American pulp fiction suggest that it was probably written within a few years of that date. The two stories present a remarkable contrast in method and tone; because Beast in the Shadows contains some discussion that is peripherally related to the contrast in question it was a sensible decision to place that one second, even if it was the earlier of the two.
The title of the The Black Lizard refers to the nickname of a female supercriminal, who has a tattoo of a black lizard on her upper arm: a typical product of the process of melodramatic inflation that affects all series featuring exceptional heroes. Akechi Kogorō is a detective whose amazing mental brilliance is coupled with remarkable physical prowess, bringing him into the margins of superheroism; such a character requires adversaries worthy of his mettle, and his every success ups the stakes, so that the next adversary he meets must be even more challenging than the last. Only a veritable criminal mastermind can provide him with a decent match, and even then requires further advantages: a legion of thuggish hirelings, an insanely devoted henchman, a private island, various technological gadgets, etc, etc. (The elements of the formula would have been well-known by the mid-1930s to any follower of the exotic detective pulps.) The Black Lizard has the additional advantage of her sex--she is, of course, a classic femme fatale--and the extra motivation provided by a fervent personal desire to get the better of the seemingly-invincible Akechi.
It sometimes happens that the transplantation of American genre fiction to an alien culture facilitates an extra luxuriance of growth, such as can be seen in Italian "spaghetti Westerns." In the same way that Italian Westerns discarded the paraphernalia of localization in order to concentrate on, and further exaggerate, the iconic aspects of the genre--most obviously the gunfight--Rampo's Japanese pulp detective story dispenses with standard American decor while exaggerating the real heart of the matter: the quasi-gladiatorial contest between Akechi and the Black Lizard. The eponymous villainess does not trouble herself with anything so vulgar as a commercial motive for her crimes, nor does she attempt to hide her involvement--indeed, she politely notifies her victims beforehand that she intends to commit her crimes, in order that they might take sufficient precautions to make the game interesting. Nor does Rampo make any bones about the fact that the contest between Akechi and his adversary is really a kind of erotic play, for which death will provide the only appropriate consummation. The fact that the particular enterprise featured in the novel involves the kidnap of a young girl--ostensibly for ransom, the price being a unique gem--adds an extra measure of lesbian spice to the erotic element, which contrives to be both explicit and tasteful in a manner that seems archetypically Japanese.
The Black Lizard is, of course, a confection of style rather than substance; at a rational level, it is utter nonsense--but that only serves to highlight its ostentatious fascination with exotic ratiocination. Unlike most Western manifestations of this kind of series fiction--Ian Fleming's James Bond series is one of the most famous examples--The Black Lizard is not content to minimize its detective story trappings and become an action/adventure thriller. Instead, it fetishizes its mystery story motifs and puzzles, parading them flamboyantly as narrative flourishes, careless of their dissonance with such kinky exotica as the living exhibits in the "museum" in the Black Lizard's island hideaway. The plot lurches hither and yon, never quite knowing in which direction it is heading, and its melodramatic opening becomes irrelevant by the time its reaches its conclusion--Rampo was presumably a make-it-up-as-you-go writer--but that is an irrelevance in this kind of story, which thrives on its imagery and its momentary balance of forces.
Beast in the Shadows is a very different kind of story, and rejoices in that fact. What it has in common with The Black Lizard is that it revels in its own artificiality, taking a viewpoint directly contrary to that of Raymond Chandler's famous essay on "The Simple Art of Murder," which applauded Dashiell Hammett for taking crime out of stagy English country houses and giving it back to the criminals. In Beast in the Shadows, as in The Black Lizard, no one stoops so low as to commit a crime for such a vulgar reason as personal enrichment or conventional hatred. The Japanese cultural context, however, demands a kind of artificiality very different from that of the English country houses where so many dead bodies used to turn up unexpectedly in the library or the conservatory in classic tales of amateur detectives.
The most striking aspect of Beast in the Shadows is that it cuts out the middleman, by making its central character a writer of detective stories rather than a mere detective. There are American series that feature amateur detectives who just happen to be writers, but Rampo takes the notion much more seriously; the first person narrator of Beast in the Shadows is not just a writer of detective stories playing detective in his spare time. He is consulted precisely because he is a writer, whose contacts and insight are invaluable because the adversary he is called upon to oppose is also a writer of detective stories, albeit of a markedly different stripe.
In the first chapter of Beast in the Shadows, the narrator calls attention to two distinct types of detective story, one of which is focused on the analysis of physical evidence--the identification of clues and the deduction of their significance--while the other is focused on the psychology of the criminal mind. The narrator insists that he is of the former type: a fundamentally methodical man who writes under is own name, and presents himself as an honest broker, in the way that he constructs his plots and the way that he conducts his life. His adversary is, of course, of the other type: a writer whose real identity is hidden beneath a pseudonym, and whose actual person is remarkably elusive, whose subject matter is dangerous psychopathology and who seems, from the narrator's viewpoint to be a dangerous psychopath in his own right.
The narrator is approached by Oyamada Shizuko, the wife of an entrepreneur, who tells him that she is receiving threatening letters from an old lover, Hirata Ichirō, who has allegedly built a patchily successful career as Oē Shundei, enigmatic writer of dark crime fiction, since the two were first acquainted. Now, apparently, he has both the will and the means to punish her for spurning his advances in the distant past. The narrator is glad to have the opportunity to pit his wits--and, tacitly, his writing methodology--against his opponent's, to see who will come out on top. Shizuko's persecutor sends her reports on her actions, revealing that he has her under close observation by some mysterious means; the narrator investigates, and discovers the means, but cannot track down Oē Shundei or Hirata Ichirō, let alone find firm evidence that the two are one and the same. While he extends his enquiries, Shizuko's husband is murdered, and it appears that she might be next...but then things begin to get complicated.
It would be impolitic to say any more about the intricate convolutions of the plot of Beast in the Shadows, because any further revelation might spoil the reader's enjoyment, but it is probably safe to mention that a further layer of complication is added by the fact that the narrator's confidence in his own self-representation is a trifle excessive; he turns out, somewhat to his own surprise, not to be as carefully objective an assessor of evidence as he presumed. This subtle element of unreliable narration, coupled with the story's anticipation of the phenomenon of psychopathic stalking, emphasizes its striking originality; the fact that such a work could have been produced in 1928 is rather startling. Although The Black Lizard is fun to read, Beast in the Shadows is far the more fascinating of the two texts, and it pays a significantly greater compliment to Rampo's ability and complexity. While The Black Lizard has certainly been culturally transfigured in order to make it something more than an exercise in pastiche, Beast in the Shadows is much more obviously a work of Japanese fiction, which surely could not have been produced anywhere else. It would be very interesting to see further examples of this aspect of the author's work.
Japanese is a difficult language to translate into English, partly because the unpacking of its complex characters sometimes generates English sentences that are very difficult to organize grammatically, but Ian Hughes has done a good job; once the reader gets used to the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the prose, the narrative flow takes over and the text becomes easy to digest. This is a book that anyone interested in the history of crime fiction will want to read; Western fans of Japanese manga and anime will also find it interesting, as an illustration of the generic narrative foundations of those media.
(The above review is complete and as-written by Brian Stableford, with the exception of minor formatting issues.)