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Sunday, May 21, 2006

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Lurking in the shadows, following in Edgar Allan Poe's footsteps


THE BLACK LIZARD AND BEAST IN THE SHADOWS, by Edogawa Rampo, translated by Ian Hughes, introduction by Mark Schreiber. Fukuoka: Kurodahan Press, 2006, 284 pp., $15.00 (paper).

Edogawa Rampo, the pen name Taro Hirai (1894-1965) adopted in homage to Edgar Allan Poe (think phonetically), is the father of the Japanese mystery. He remains a cultural icon, his oeuvre a mother lode of film ideas. Few of his works have been translated, however. So the publication of two admirably rendered Rampo novellas is welcome. One even lives up to its author's namesake.

"The Black Lizard" features Rampo's main detective, Kogoro Akechi. Akechi is a super sleuth, highly respected by the Police Investigative Unit, and a master of disguise.

So is his nemesis, the Black Lizard. This siren with a taste for black clothes and expensive jewelry has on her upper left arm a tattoo of a black lizard. Nowadays mom with child in tow at the local pool may sport a tattoo in the small of her back, but in 1934, the story's year of publication, a tattoo marked a woman as an outlaw. The Black Lizard kills for what she desires.

She covets the "Star of Egypt," a diamond belonging to a jeweler, and also his daughter, Sanae. "I've come to desire your body even more," she tells her. Perversion laces both stories to the degree permissible in the prewar era of creeping fascism.

Akechi is hired to protect Sanae after her father receives letters forewarning her abduction. The Black Lizard forewarns because she savors matching wits with Akechi. They assume disguises as she tricks him and he counter-tricks her. Unbeknown to her, Akechi substitutes a young woman for Sanae. The Black Lizard abducts the look-a-like.

The Black Lizard hides Sanae's double in a subterranean lair, where she displays her collections of jewelry and stuffed humans. This baroque setting is one reason for the story's frequent adaptation for small and large screens, including a feature film with a Yukio Mishima cameo.

The novella resembles manga in eroticism, the protagonist's chameleon prowess, and the victory of good over evil. Akechi only appears to blunder; he is invincible, ordained to prevail. The Black Lizard is evil incarnate, a stock character, a Wicked Witch of the West. "Hee, hee, hee!" she cackles.

But Rampo never intended realism. "Lizard" is intentional camp. Rampo suggests as much when he ascribes Akechi's theatrical ruse at the story's end to detectives not being "complete bores without a sense of humour."

Rampo achieves greater depth of character in "Beast in the Shadows," whose narrator, a mystery writer, wrestles with the question of his own complicity. He introduces himself as "an author" whose only interest is in the intellectual process of detection. "I am in no way a bad person."

Indeed he requires the ratiocinative mind of Poe's Auguste Dupin. Who, if anyone, killed Rokuro Oyamada? Suspicion shifts. The narrator loses objectivity as he sinks into an S/M relationship with Oyamada's widow. By the novella's end he can no longer claim not to be "a bad person." He now knows the beast in the shadows. Rather than the black-and-white world of "Lizard," there are shades of gray.

"Beast" is the more atmospheric work. The genre's best authors set their shamuses in real places. Think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's London of hansom cabs and dim lodgings or of Raymond Chandler's noirish Los Angeles. In "Beast" Rampo's sleuth inhabits Asakusa, with its cheap lodgings, freak shows and ferry on which traders "described their wares in time to the beat of the screw in the hoarse voice of a narrator who takes on all the roles in a silent movie."

"Lizard" is an entertainment. "Beast" is a gem coruscating with Rampo's virtuosity as storyteller. Both novellas, "Lizard" especially, read like serials, their periodical origin heightened by the illustrations. You finish one chapter thirsty for the next. And satisfaction is only a turn of the page away.



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