Gold Mask by Edogawa Rampo, translated by William Varteresian
Originally published from 1930-31 in King magazine as 黄金仮面
English translation first published in 2019
The actual blurb to the Kurodahan Press translation contains a very significant spoiler about a key plot point from this story. Instead of reproducing that blurb, as I would usually do, I have opted to provide my own below.
Detective Akechi Kogorō is called upon to investigate a crime spree orchestrated by a figure seen wearing a golden mask and cloak. On several occasions the Gold Mask is seen committing audacious thefts and is cornered only to miraculously disappear, baffling the police and striking fear into the public’s imagination.
Before I start to discuss this book I feel I ought to reiterate a warning I provided in the book details section of this post. Gold Mask is a novel that is constructed around a surprising reveal that occurs about two thirds of the way into the story. Rather unfortunately the blurb to the English-language translation from Kurodahan Press tells the prospective reader exactly what that is, hence why I felt the need to provide a plot summary of my own.
I wanted to draw readers’ attention to this for a few reasons. Firstly, to warn those who wish to avoid being spoiled to handle this with caution (I would also suggest not looking at the table of contents too closely for much the same reason). I would not suggest that the novel necessarily needs that reveal to entertain and engage readers – the book being as much about the process and sense of adventure as the ultimate destination – but it’s a nice moment, handled pretty well and so why rid it of its impact unless you have to? That is not to say that I blame or criticize the publishers for their choice here. Given the potential draw that this idea presents it is unsurprising that a publisher would emphasize it in their marketing.
The other reason is that I want to emphasize that I will be doing my best to avoid directly referring to that part of the story in the main body of the review. This does limit my capacity to talk about the handling of that reveal and that part of the story a little but honestly, I think it happens so late in the story in any case that my feelings about it feel quite secondary to my interest in the plot which, like The Black Lizard, is a great example of a pulpy, detective thriller with lashings of danger and adventure.
With that out of the way, it’s time to discuss the book itself. This was originally published as a serialized novel and so the style is quite punchy, the narrator often directly talking to the reader and teasing things to come or driving home the strangeness of a moment, and each chapter seems to end on a cliffhanger or moment that suggests an escalation of the danger facing Akechi. It makes for excellent, page-turning fare offering plenty of disguises, double bluffs and tricks with identity as the story seems to get progressively grander and wider in scale as we near its conclusion.
The book begins by establishing Gold Mask as a sort of odd urban legend that spreads after a young girl in Ginza claims to have seen a man in the mask looking through a shop window and further sightings take place around Tokyo. Things escalate however when during the Gold Mask steals a pearl during a great exhibition and is chased into a theater where a theatrical production about his legend happens to be underway. The police chase him and eventually corner him on the roof of a building that is surrounded on all sides yet he somehow manages to evade detection and vanish into the night. A feat he repeats on several subsequent occasions.
It is for this reason, as well as a couple of other moments in the novel, that I opted to categorized this as an impossible crime novel though I will add the caveat that I do not think this really reads as such. Rampo’s emphasis falls consistently upon the adventure elements of the story rather than the detection, but I enjoy the way this story tries to surprise the reader with improbable identity reveals and disappearances from right under Akechi’s nose.
On a similar note, I also enjoy the battle of wits element that Rampo creates between his hero and the Gold Mask as each tries to best the other. This becomes increasingly direct in the later parts of the novel, leading to some entertaining exchanges and culminating in a very fitting and enjoyable conclusion that feels appropriate to all that had come before it.
The image of the figure with the expressionless golden mask is a pleasingly visual one and I had little difficulty imagining him chased through a gallery or standing threateningly in a window. The lack of any facial details is a powerful idea and I think the novel sells the strangeness of that image well, making it clear why the public interest in this figure would grow so strong and how his sudden appearance might seem quite haunting and unsettling.
The only dissatisfaction I feel with this aspect of the story gets us into solid spoiler territory and so I am afraid I will need to be a little vague here. I feel that Rampo’s efforts to emphasize that Akechi is brilliant and heroic require a slight diminishment in Gold Mask’s character. It is quite understandable that this might would have been Rampo’s method of storytelling but I feel it is sometimes a little unnecessary.
Other than that, I found this to be another example of an entertaining, if sometimes quite far-fetched, story stuffed full of reversals of fortune and bravery that I think may well be worth your time. I would still recommend The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows as a better place to start with getting to know the author’s works.
The Verdict: More an adventure-thriller than a fair play detective story, though it does what it does very well.