After being introduced to the works of Edogawa Ranpo through Strange Tale of Panorama Island and Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I have slowly been making my way through the rest of his work available in English. Compared to his total output in Japan where he was and continues to be an extremely influential author, relatively little has actually been translated. Happily, in recent years Kurodahan Press has been releasing more and more of Ranpo’s stories and essays. The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows became the first volume of Ranpo’s work to be published by Kurodahan Press in English in 2006. Translated by Ian Hughes and with an introduction by Mark Schreiber and illustrations by Kawajiri Hiroaki, the book collects two of Ranpo’s short novels. The Black Lizard, originally published in Japan in 1934, features Ranpo’s famous detective Akechi Kogorō. The second, shorter story, Beast in the Shadows, was first released in 1928 was one of Ranpo’s earlier major works.
In the Japanese underworld the Black Lizard reigns supreme. A woman of exceptional beauty and intelligence, she has become one of Japan’s greatest criminals with an entourage of underlings ready and willing to carry out her schemes and to do her bidding. Most recently the Black Lizard has had her eye on the “Star of Egypt,” the most precious diamond in Japan. Her intent isn’t to steal it. Instead, she has put into motion an audacious plan to kidnap the owner’s daughter Sanae and demand the diamond as ransom. The brilliant private detective Akechi Kogorō is called in to prevent the kidnapping, but he may have met his match with the Black Lizard. The battle of wits between these two opponents in The Black Lizard is marvelous. Both are masters of disguise and both are extremely clever. A large portion of the novel consists of their daring and unexpected tactics as they try to out-think and stay several step ahead of each other. The plot of The Black Lizard take the readers through numerous twists and turns, some of which are difficult to believe but all of which are exciting.
Beast in the Shadows is told from the perspective of a detective novelist who accidentally becomes involved in a case surrounding his fellow mystery author Ōe Shundei. The novelist has fallen in love with Oyamada Shizuko, the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, and it is for her sake that he begins investigating Shundei. Shundei is a misanthrope and stays out of the public eye so not much is known about the author. However, Shizuko has come to the determination that Ōe Shundei is the pen name of Hirata Ichirō, an ex-lover who has been harassing her and threatening her through letters. Hirata seems to have been spying on Shizuko and her husband and knows things about their private, intimate lives that no one else should. Instead of going to the police, Shizuko turns to the novels as her confidant in order to keep the matter discreet. Though shorter than The Black Lizard, Beast in the Shadows incorporates just as many surprising plot developments if not more, include a fantastic twist ending.
When I first started reading The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows I wondered why those two particular novels, other than being some of Ranpo’s better known works of suspense, had been collected into a single volume. But by the end it became clear that there is one particular similarity between the two stories that tie them together thematically. I’m afraid that revealing it would spoil the mystery, though. However, I will say that the Black Lizard isn’t the only incredibly cunning character in the book. Another important element in both The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows is the role that fiction plays in the stories and specifically how crime inspires and influences fantasy and vice versa. This is particularly prominent in Beast in the Shadows where two primary characters are novelists, giving them a unique perspective on the investigation. But fiction is influential to The Black Lizard as well, Ranpo’s very own short story “The Human Chair” being a pivotal reference. I already knew that I enjoy Ranpo’s work, but I found The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows particularly fascinating because of the power granted to stories in the volume.