GOLDEN OLDIE: The Black Lizard by Edogawa Rampo

Review published on February 3, 2018.

Say the author’s name out loud a few times. Edogaw-aram-po is a clever little word play on Edgar Allan Poe, a tribute to the master storyteller and creator of one of the first detectives, C. Auguste Dupin; Rampo was a fan.

Rampo was one of the first and most influential crime writers in Japan. It’s a form the nation fell in love with and sadly only a tiny percentage of Japanese crime fiction is translated into English. Fortunately, there are now several works by Rampo available. Mark Schreiber in his excellent introduction to the Kurodahan Press edition of The Black Lizard believes that Rampo was more important in the history of Japanese crime fiction than Edgar Allen Poe was in America or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Britain. Just take that in, it’s a bold claim but one he backs up with a cogent argument.

Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965) was a fan of both Poe and Doyle (translated into Japanese 1887 and 1899, respectively). What is evident form his writing is that he paid homage to both (there is a reference to the famous deerstalker in The Black Lizard). Rampo developed his own distinctive style that has some of the Japanese character in it (sensibilities, humour and eroticism). He went on to found the Nihon Tantei Sakki Club (the Japan Mystery Writers), in 1946, their equivalent of the CWA, and the Edogawa Rampo award is as prestigious as the Silver Dagger in Britain or the Edgar in the US.

Rampo was first translated into English by James B. Harris in 1956 in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (nine stories in all). The translator spoke excellent Japanese but could not read the written language and Rampo spoke poor English. So the pair sat down over a typewriter for five years discussing the stories and hammering out a faithful translation. An incredible effort, fortunately since then it has been done a little more professionally.

Rampo’s legacy bizarrely involves a real-life kidnap plot. Not to add any spoilers, the plot of The Black Lizard involves a kidnapping. In 1984 the president of food company Ezaki-Glico was abducted, he managed to escape but over the next few years a gang extorted and blackmailed the food companies of the Kansai region of Japan. No one was ever caught. The gang calls itself Kaijin Nijūichi Mensõ (the mystery man of twenty one faces), which was a sort of perverse reference to Rampo’s Kaijin Nijū Mensõ (the mystery man of twenty faces). He was the arch criminal rival of the hero of The Black Lizard and other stories – Akechi Kogorõ.

In The Black Lizard our hero faces off against the Dark Angel, the deadly female master criminal with the tattoo of a black lizard on her arm that slithers on her skin as she performs the jewel dance naked at a New Year party. Its an intriguing introduction, revealing the tattoo (the mark of the criminal and her behaviour – outside the bounds of convention). When she has done beguiling her audience, the Dark Angel is approached by minor criminal Jun-chann, he is in a panic because he has killed his rival Kitashima and his daughter, now he is a wanted man. He needs to escape and the Dark Angel announces that in order to do so he must die. An elaborate plot is hatched to fake his death but there is a price, the Dark Angel now owns Jun-chan. He is embroiled in her gang and the daring robbery she has planned. The two now turn up in society as Madame Midorikawa and Mr. Kensaku. The Dark Angel is a collector and she wants the Star of Egypt, a large diamond in the possession of merchant Iwase Shõbei. She will kidnap his beautiful daughter Sanae for ransom. The problem is that Iwase has hired the great detective Akechi Kogorõ to protect the family because the Dark Angel, who in her hubris has warned the merchant of her plan. When she meets him she can’t resist taunting the detective. What unfolds is a battle of wits between the Dark Angel and the master detective. The evil motives of the dark angel mean that failure by the detective will result in some terrible consequences for the merchant’s daughter.

The story is constantly edgy and so much darker than Sherlock Holmes. The two female characters are feisty and clever and the dark angel is an homage to Irene Adler but again much tougher. She may even be psychopathic. Her museum of treasures is a Victorian nightmare. Not at all the standard villain.

Some of the plot twists are obvious to the modern reader because we have all seen them played out in film and in other novels since but they are original here. None of them are dated or childish like the snake down the rope or the killer tarantula. The Black Lizard is a retro-read. You can’t help but trip over the references to Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle but these are endearing, even the mention of the deerstalker is pleasing. The presence of the master criminal, the uber-clever detective, a dastardly plot (disguises, spy networks) are all great fun. A delight for the reader.

Since Natsuo Kirino won an Edgar in 2004 for her novel Out we have seen more Japanese crime in translation but we are probably still missing out on some great reads. Here are some Japanese authors to look out for:

Old masters: Seicho Matsumoto, Akimitsu Takagi, Masako Togawa, and Soji Shimada
More recent writers: Keigo Higashino, Tetsuya Honda, and Ryu Murakami.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Black Lizard by Edogawa Rampo
Kurodahan Press pbk 2006

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