The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō

The Early Cases of Akechi KogorōAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: William Varteresian
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075625
Released: November 2014
Original release: 1925-1926

Edogawa Rampo, the pen name of Hirai Tarō, was an extraordinarily influential author in Japan, especially when it came to the genre of detective and crime fiction. His influence can still be seen to this day and his work continues to inspire other creators. One of his most famous characters is the detective Akechi Kogorō. Previously, only a handful of stories featuring Akechi had been translated into English: “The Psychological Test,” found in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination; The Black Lizard, which was collected in a single volume along with Beast in the Shadows; “The Stalker in the Attic,” published in The Edogawa Rampo Reader; and The Fiend with Twenty Faces. I have always wished for a volume entirely devoted to Akechi mysteries and so I was very happy when Kurodahan Press announced The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō. Published in 2014 with translations by William Varteresian, the anthology collects four of the earliest Akechi stories written between 1925 and 1926.

After an excellent and informative introductory essay about Edogawa Rampo and Akechi Kogorō, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō opens with Rampo’s very first mystery featuring Akechi, “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill,” a short story about the death of Akechi’s childhood friend, the wife of an owner of a secondhand bookshop he frequents. Rampo hadn’t initially intended for Akechi to become a recurring character in his fiction but readers liked him. The second story in the volume, “The Black Hand Gang,” is narrated by the same protagonist as the first, a relatively new acquaintance of Akechi, and the two of them become involved with an investigation into the disappearance of a young relative. In “The Ghost,” Akechi doesn’t appear until rather late in the story to deal with a peculiar case of a wealthy man suffering from a rival’s deep-seated grudge. The volume concludes with The Dwarf, a short novel well-received by the public but apparently disliked by Rampo himself in which Akechi is faced with an increasingly complicated murder mystery with numerous twist and turns.

All four stories in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō were written towards the beginning of Rampo’s career. As is noted in the introduction, Rampo largely wasn’t very happy with them. Although The Dwarf became fairly well-known in part thanks to its film adaptations, the cases collected in the volume are generally not examples of Rampo’s best or strongest work, lacking the polish of later stories. An important component of “The Black Hand Gang” doesn’t even translate very well into English since it relies on a cryptographic method based on the Japanese writing systems. Overall, the included mysteries are still enjoyable but somehow not quite as compelling as many of Rampo’s other tales. He would, however, reuse, rework, and refine many of their elements in subsequent writings. One of the things that makes these four stories particularly notable, and the reason that they have been collected together in the first place, is that they reveal Akechi very early on in his development before has become Rampo’s iconic detective and even before his character has been firmly established.

I’ll admit, I like this early Akechi in all of his eccentricities. In “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” he begins as a well-read and intelligent young man with a particular interest in and fascination with detective and mystery fiction. The small apartment that he rents is so full of books that there’s barely any room to stand, let alone sit or entertain guests. He’s a flashy dresser and an eloquent speaker with a fondness and flair for the dramatic. By the time of The Dwarf, Akechi has begun to transform into the master detective that he will later be remembered as. He is no longer just an amateur sleuth seeking out strange cases in his spare time as some sort of hobby; Akechi has become a skilled and famous investigator with contacts in the judicial and police forces and a cohort of men working under him. I enjoyed The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō a great deal specifically because it provides a glimpse of the earliest incarnations of Rampo’s great detective. I do hope to have the opportunity to read even more of Akechi’s stories in translation in the future.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows

The Black Lizard and Beast in the ShadowsAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Illustrator: Kawajiri Hiroaki

Translator: Ian Hughes
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075212
Released: January 2006
Original release: 1934 and 1928

After being introduced to the works of Edogawa Rampo 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 Rampo’s stories and essays. The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows became the first volume of Rampo’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 Rampo’s short novels. The Black Lizard, originally published in Japan in 1934, features Rampo’s famous detective Akechi Kogorō. The second, shorter story, Beast in the Shadows, was first released in 1928 was one of Rampo’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 Rampo’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, Rampo’s very own short story “The Human Chair” being a pivotal reference. I already knew that I enjoy Rampo’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.

Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature

Writing the Love of BoysAuthor: Jeffrey Angles
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 9780816669707
Released: February 2011

I’ve recently become rather enamoured with Edogawa Rampo and his writings which is how I happened to come across Jeffrey Angles’ Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature. Published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2011, the volume is an extension of Angles’ 2004 PhD dissertation “Writing the Love of Boys: Representations of Male-Male Desire in the Literature of Murayama Kaita and Edogawa Rampo.” Angles is currently an associate professor of Japanese literature, language, and translation at Western Michigan University. His primary research interests include translation, modern Japanese poetry, and romance and sexuality in Japanese literature, and especially the portrayal of same-sex desire. All of these subjects are at least touched upon if not thoroughly explored in Writing the Love of Boys. They are all topics that I am particularly interested in as well, so I was rather pleased to discover Writing the Love of Boys while searching for more information on Rampo and his works.

In Writing the Love of Boys, Angles examines the expression of same-sex desire, and specifically male-male desire, in Japanese literature during the late Taishō era (1912-1926) and early Shōwa period (1926-1989). In doing so he focuses on the work of three authors in particular: Murayama Kaita (1896-1919), who was also a poet and a painter; Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), an incredibly influential writer of detective and mystery fiction among other things; and Inagaki Taruho (1900-1977), whose avant-garde work is noted as being particularly innovative. All three of these authors produced work that either incorporated or directly addressed male-male desire of both homosocial and homoerotic nature. Writing during a time in which attitudes towards sexuality in Japan were changing due to the influence of new medical and psychological approaches, Kaita, Rampo, and Taruho portrayed male-male desire in a way that was different from their immediate predecessors. Placing them within this historical and literary context, Angles also shows how their work would influence creators who followed them as well.

Another subject that is particularly important in Writing the Love of Boys is the erotic grotesque nonsense movement and fad of the 1920s and 1930s. Ero guro literature allowed its authors to explore the bizarre and the strange, including sexual desire that was considered by society to be perverse. However, although Kaita, Rampo, and Taruho were all involved in the rise of ero guro literature, Angles argues that their portrayal of male-male desire was frequently sympathetic and even subversive within the context of the genre which generally used sexuality for the purpose of titillation. Of the three authors that Angles focuses on in Writing the Love of Boys, it is Rampo who is the most well-known in English and who has had more of his work translated. Reading Angles’ analyses and translated excerpts of these three authors’ work, I can’t help but lament the fact that more of their writing isn’t currently available in English. But even though most of the works discussed in Writing the Love of Boys have yet to be released in translation, it is still interesting and valuable to learn about their place and importance within the literary and queer history of Japan.

For me, one of the most intriguing parts of Writing the Love of Boys was the literary lineage that Angles outlines, beginning with Kaita, who influenced Rampo, who in turn collaborated with Taruho, who was a direct inspiration to Takemiya Keiko, one of the creators whose work in the 1970s would lay the foundation for the entire boys’ love genre. In fact, much of the conclusion of Writing the Love of Boys is devoted to the lasting influence and legacies of Kaita, Rampo, and Taruho that can be seen in boys’ love manga. Angles credits Taruho as one of the authors who began developing an aesthetic of male-male desire for a female audience; several of his stories, including his debut, were published in magazines for women. This is one of the links that Angles uses to tie these three authors to the more recently developed genre of stories featuring male-male love primarily written for women by women. To some extent it does feel a little tangential to the work as a whole, and it was somewhat jarring to jump from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond, but there is a legitimate connection. I found Writing the Love of Boys to be incredibly fascinating; it ended up addressing more of my interests than I initially realized it would—queer theory, ero guro, and even manga, in addition to many other topics.

The Fiend with Twenty Faces

The Fiend with Twenty FacesAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Illustrator: Tim Smith 3

Translator: Dan Luffey
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075250
Released: March 2012
Original release: 1936

Edogawa Rampo, the pen name of Tarō Hirai, was one of Japan’s preeminent authors of the erotic grotesque nonsense movement. However, he was also well-known for his detective and mystery stories. Later in his career he even wrote a series for children called The Boy Detectives. The first and possibly best-known novel in this series was The Fiend with Twenty Faces, originally serialized in the boys adventure magazine Shōnen Club in 1936. The English translation of The Fiend with Twenty Faces by Dan Luffey was published by Kurodahan Press in 2012 with illustrations by Tim Smith 3. Although Rampo was a prolific and extremely influential author in Japan, relatively few of his works have been translated into English. So far, The Fiend with Twenty Faces is the only example of Rampo’s stories for a young audience to have been made available. As a fan of Rampo’s ero guro works, I was curious to read something a little different of his.

Terrorizing the wealthy of 1930s Tokyo is a criminal known only as Twenty Faces, a master of disguise who can change his appearance with such ease that no one has been able to uncover his true identity. Using his skills of disguise and his tremendous intellect, he steals whatever suits his fancy—priceless jewels, family heirlooms, works of art—nothing is safe. He has even been known to resort to kidnapping. To make things even worse, Twenty Faces announces exactly what it is he intends to steal and when. But even armed with this knowledge, no one has yet been able to put an end to his crime spree. The only person who might be a match for Twenty Faces is the famous detective Akechi Kogorō. Unfortunately, he is currently overseas working on an important case. However, he has left behind Kobayashi Yoshio, his young assistant and protégé, to attend to his affairs. Kobayashi may be extremely clever, but Twenty Faces is cleverer still. With Akechi away, there is little hope that the criminal can be stopped, but maybe Kobayashi can at least make things a little more difficult for him.

Rampo very clearly draws from other great mystery writers in his creation of The Boy Detective series in general and in The Fiend with Twenty Faces specifically. Influences from Maurice Leblanc’s series featuring the infamous gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries with the master detective Sherlock Holmes can particularly be seen in The Fiend with Twenty Faces. Twenty Faces shares similarities with Lupin and Akechi exhibits many of the same skills that Holmes possesses. Having previously read many of Rampo’s short stories (at least those available in English), I was already familiar with Akechi from his mysteries aimed at adult audiences. I’m actually rather fond of Akechi and so was quite pleased when he made his appearance in The Fiend with Twenty Faces, even if it did take nearly half of the novel before he finally returns from overseas.

The Fiend with Twenty Faces was highly entertaining and a tremendous amount of fun. Despite being a mystery, the novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story written for a younger audience. As someone who is fairly well-read, I was able to anticipate most of the twists and turns in the plot of The Fiend with Twenty Faces. If something seemed to be too convenient or unlikely to be a coincidence, it’s most likely because it was. However, I still enjoyed the story a great deal. The characters are also fairly engaging. Twenty Faces himself is a bit of an arrogant bastard and his rivalry with Akechi is marvelous to watch unfold. I could easily imagine reading the novel aloud; Rampo’s writing addresses the reader directly and would be well-suited for performance with very little modification needed. I’m not sure if any more of the novels in The Boy Detectives series will be translated, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to discover firsthand one of the other reasons why Rampo’s influence has been so enduring in Japan.

The Edogawa Rampo Reader

The Edogawa Rampo ReaderAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: Seth Jacobowitz
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075250
Released: December 2008
Original release: 1926-1956

The Edogawa Rampo Reader, edited and translated by Seth Jacobowitz, was only the third volume of Edogawa Rampo’s work to be released in English, following Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed) and The Black Lizard and The Beast in the Shadows. Published by Kurodahan Press in 2008, The Edogawa Rampo Reader collects eight of Rampo’s short stories and ten of his essays selected from 1926 through 1956. In addition to these eighteen selections, The Edogawa Rampo Reader also includes a preface by Tatsumi Takayuki and an extensive introduction by Jacobowitz. Prior to the release of The Edogawa Rampo Reader, none of Rampo’s nonfiction work had been translated into English. In fact, all of the selections in The Edogawa Rampo Reader made their first appearance in English in the volume.

After the preface and introduction, The Edogawa Rampo Reader is divided into two sections: The Stories and The Essays. The stories include “The Daydream,” “The Martian Canals,” “The Appearance of Osei,” “Poison Weeds,” “The Stalker in the Attic,” “The Air Raid Shelter,” “Doctor Mera’s Mysterious Crimes,” and “The Dancing Dwarf.” Selected from throughout his career, the works exhibit Rampo’s skills as a mystery writer as well as a writer of the strange. The essays primarily fall into two different categories, those that are at least somewhat autobiographical—”The Horrors of Film,” “Spectral Voices,” “A Passion for Lenses,” “The Phantom Lord,” “My Love for the Printed Word,” and “Confessions of Rampo”—and those that deal with mystery fiction—”Fingerprint Novels of the Meiji Era,” “Dickens vs. Poe,” “An Eccentric Idea,” and “A Desire for Transformation.” Although there are more essays than stories in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, the nonfiction selections tend to be shorter than the fiction and so the section isn’t quite as long.

Whereas Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination basically amounted to a “best of” collection of Rampo’s short stories, The Edogawa Rampo Reader was deliberately curated to be representative of the different stages in Rampo’s career. Additionally, the volume emphasizes recurring motifs and themes that Rampo was fond of incorporating into both his fiction and nonfiction. The Edogawa Rampo Reader is meant to be comprehensive, single-volume exploration of Rampo and his work. As much as I enjoy Rampo’s short stories (which I do quite a bit) the real draw of The Edogawa Rampo Reader for me was the essays. Rampo is not only a fascinating author, he is also a fascinating person. His love of reading and writing comes through very clearly in his nonfiction. It was also interesting to see where he found his inspiration as a writer. His own life and imagination were sources, but literature from Japan and the rest of the world were also important influences.

The Edogawa Rampo Reader is a valuable resource. Rampo is an important literary figure in Japan, often cited as the father of modern Japanese mystery and crime fiction. His influence can still be seen today. Rampo is a noteworthy and intriguing creator; it really is a shame that more of his work isn’t available in English. Although they are all very good, I didn’t find the short stories in The Edogawa Rampo Reader to be quite as immediately engaging as those in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. However, overall the selection is broader in terms of genre and style. My favorite story was probably “The Stalker in the Attic,” which features Rampo’s detective Akechi Kogorō. (I would love to see an entire collection of Akechi stories in English.) But, as already mentioned, Rampo’s essays are really the highlight of the volume. I hope to see more of Rampo’s work released in English, but The Edogawa Rampo Reader makes a fine introduction to the influential author’s life and writing.