Blogiversary: 4 Years Old

Today I can’t help but be a little self-indulgent as it marks the fourth anniversary of my starting this blog. A lot has changed over the years – my average post length has nearly doubled for one thing – but one thing that has stayed the same is my love of mysteries. If anything it has deepened as I have read more widely and discovered new authors and sub-genres of mystery and crime fiction that I never knew existed.

Thanks to all who share their thoughts, book recommendations and to those who have shared and linked to my posts. That has truly been the most rewarding part of book blogging and it’s what always pulls me back when I hit a reading slump or when real life responsibilities have had to take precedence. I appreciate your friendship and support and, as always, thank you for making this hobby so special to me.

Now that I’ve got the sentimental stuff out of the way, let’s move on to the other aspects of the blogiversary post. Each year I have made promises to myself about the things I have hoped to do in the year to come.

Last year I noted that I had just done a big redesign and so didn’t expect to make any further structural changes (that prediction failed – I did a redesign a month or so ago when I accidentally selected a different theme while experimenting in the WordPress customizer). Accordingly, I aimed to make smaller, achievable commitments.

Let’s see how I did:

Create more author guide pages – We’re not getting off to a great start here. This hasn’t happened at all (I may possibly have done Carr since then but that’s about it). The one thing in my defense is that I did revamp the ones I have done a little both in terms of creating new headers to match the revamped design and also getting away from the grid system to provide more detail and quotes from my reviews.

So a bit of a miss here but I have a pretty clear idea these days on what I want those pages to look like. Perhaps one for a year or two down the line when I’ll have read enough to properly realize some of those big ideas!

Write more Five To Try posts – I didn’t do brilliantly with this one either, though I created a bunch of header images and have a document where I list different books I would select for each. I am happy with the ones I did do though (Theatrical Mysteries, Hotel Mysteries and Poisoning Mysteries) and I will certainly hope to do more with this in the months to come!

More impossible crimes – Unlike the two previous goals, I did pretty amazingly with this one. This past year has seen me do more impossible crimes than anything else on my blog. This was helped by a spell of three months where I reviewed a different impossible crime novel each Monday (and often added a second one midweek). I enjoyed that ‘season’ of reviews and plan to repeat it again at some point in the New Year.

So, overall not a great year for meeting my goals but while I may have whiffed at several of these promises to myself, I feel pretty happy with the overall direction that the blog has taken.

A little over a month ago I posted my 450th book review and it seems quite possible that I will reach 500 around the New Year. I already have some ideas in mind for what I will want that book to be and am looking forward to blogging about mystery fiction for many more years to come…

As I always like to note when I make these Five to Try lists, I am not suggesting that the five titles I pick are the five best books I have read but rather than they are five titles that I think are deserving of some additional attention. I wanted to select the five titles I have read this past year that have really stood out for me as doing something unusual or unexpected.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

The Disaster Tourist concerns a woman whose career with a tour company that specializes in trips to areas that have experienced natural disasters seems to have deteriorated. After raising a complaint about harassment at work, she goes on a working holiday to evaluate one of their least profitable trips and prepare a proposal for an overhaul. She soon discovers though that the locals have their own plan to restore their profitability…

The book sits on the very edge of the genre as a blend of thriller and satire but I found it to be a really memorable read thanks to the fascinating and provocative questions it poses about the nature of eco-tourism and its dark portrayal of corporate culture.

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

Such Bright Disguises is an inverted mystery in which a young woman and her lover concoct a plan to murder her husband to allow them to be together.

The structure of the novel is interesting as the first part follows their reaching that decision and carrying out the deed. The second then follows what happens next as we see how their relationship is affected by their actions before a final, quite short part sees our series investigator – Anthony Bathurst – piece everything together.

There is some great character exploration and development but I think what I love most about this story is the conclusion which is fantastic. Easily my favorite Flynn to date (expect more reviews to come in Year Five).

Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo

A woman approaches a writer of detective fiction, explaining that she has been harassed by a former lover who is sending threatening letters to her, tracking her movements through the family home. He visits her home and makes some unsettling discoveries but concocts a plan to protect her. Things take a turn however when her husband is found dead and the pair worry that she might be next.

Beast in Shadows is a wonderfully creepy and unsettling read. Rampo manages to balance moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

One bonus is that it is currently available in a double-bill with the pulpy The Black Lizard which is a really entertaining adventure tale.

How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina

How to Kidnap the Rich is an absolute blast to read. The novel, which blends social satire and a great con game and kidnapping yarn, is an absolutely wild ride that left me drawing comparisons with the work of Jim Thompson. It’s a really sharp and smart read that kept surprising me with each new development.

The characters are superbly drawn and I loved Ramesh, the protagonist, who has a really interesting and cynical narrative voice. I never really wanted him to succeed so much as I wanted to see all the other, terrible people lose and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about those antagonists and seeing what happened to them.

Best of all, rather than fizzling out it builds to a really compelling conclusion that I think fit the tone and the themes of the novel perfectly.

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

One of my favorite tropes in inverted mysteries is the murderer who is haunted by his crime. C. S. Forester’s Payment Deferred is a sublime example of that idea as Mr. Marble commits murder, makes a fortune and then finds himself unable to enjoy it as he lives in permanent fear of discovery.

The characterization here is superb and I loved the way the novel explores how Marbles’ new-found wealth affects not only him but the other members of his family. It is all handled extremely thoughtfully and while I felt profoundly sorry for some of those other characters, I think its ending is powerfully and highly effective.

A superb read that I consider one of the best in the inverted mysteries sub-genre.

Looking Ahead To Year Five

Here is the bit of the post where I foolishly set a number of criteria that I will fail to have met in a year’s time. While that may seem like an exercise in frustration, I do think that the process has value in terms of showing where I would like to head in the future.

More Public Domain Mysteries – one of the most-visited pages on this website is the one where I highlight works I have read that are in the public domain in the United States and so can be read for free by many readers. I had created this resource during the early days of the pandemic in a period where buying books might be logistically or financially impossible and while I continue to occasionally add to it, I haven’t read much work lately that would qualify.

While I don’t plan on making a commitment to a weekly read I do want to be mindful about doing at least one a month. I am even toying with the idea of flagging the book I am planning to read in case anyone wants to play along (though that would require me to actually stick to a posting schedule so perhaps not, eh?).

More Themed Mondays – I mentioned above that the Mondays are Impossible feature that I did throughout the Summer was enormously satisfying for me. So was my previous set of Monday posts focused on Japanese mysteries. While I want to be careful to avoid becoming too structured, I did enjoy the idea of doing a series of linked posts and being purposeful about seeking out new writers and authors who would help me achieve that goal. Twitter pals can expect more polls asking for help selecting new reads and themes in the months to come!

Replacing Jonathan Creek – Perhaps the biggest challenge in the months ahead will be figuring out what on earth I will be doing with my Saturday posts. For the past year or so I have been pretty focused on working through the Jonathan Creek series but now that I’ve done them all I find myself left with a void to fill.

Will it be more TV? Perhaps a day to share more long-form writing or a return to Columbo? Or will it perhaps be something else entirely? As of yet I have no firm plans…

So, that’s it for Year Four. Thank you once again for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts and opinions with me. I hope to see you again in Year Five (and beyond)!

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.

Plot Summary

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.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo, translated by Ian Hughes

The Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴, Kuro-tokage) was originally published in 1934
Beast in The Shadows (陰獣, Injū) was originally published in 1928
English translations published as a collection in 2006

The Black Lizard (Kurotokage) first appeared as a magazine serial, published in twelve monthly installments between January and December, 1934. It features Rampo’s main detective character, Akechi Kogorō: a figure who combines elements of Poe’s Auguste Dupin with the gentleman adventurers of British golden age detective literature. The Black Lizard herself is a master criminal and femme fatale, whose charged relationship with detective Akechi and unconcealed sadism have inspired shuddering admiration in generations of readers…

Themes of deviance and sado-masochism are central to Beast in the Shadows (Inju), a tale from the height of Rampo’s grotesque period, which appeared in serial form between August and October, 1928. This tale of secret identities, violent sexuality, and dark crimes stands in stark contrast to the genteel detective stories then popular in English literature. It bears comparison with the American pulp fiction serial, the genre that led to the classic modern American crime novel, and with the more extravagant moments of film noir. Beast in the Shadows, however, recalls classic themes in Japanese popular fiction, with origins in the illustrated novels and mass market shockers of the Edo period (1600-1868)…

Edogawa Rampo is one of the most enduring and consequential writers of mystery fiction in Japan from the early 20th century. His work is heavily influenced by the likes of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, so the focus is often not on crafting fair play stories of detection but memorable moments of horror, discomfort and adventure. I previously reviewed a collection of his short stories on this blog, many of which memorably play with grotesque and disturbing types of crime.

In addition to his own stories for adults and children, he established a journal dedicated to mystery fiction, the Detective Author’s Club (later renamed as the Mystery Writers of Japan) and wrote critical essays about the history and the form of the genre. His works were frequently adapted into films both during and after his lifetime and his significance is recognized in the name of a Japanese literary award, The Edogawa Rampo Prize, for unpublished mystery authors which was introduced in the 1950s.

In short, there was no way I would commit to writing several months weekly posts about Japanese works of mystery and crime fiction without including at least one of his works. Based on this experience I may try and rework my schedule to make that two…

This volume contains two works from earlier in his career. Both stories were originally serialized for publication in magazines which is quite evident in the way the stories are structured. Many chapters seem to end either on a significant revelation or with moments of peril, particularly in the case of the first story in this collection – The Black Lizard.

The story is essentially inverted with the reader being party to the planning of a daring crime in which the titular crime boss, The Black Lizard, plans to kidnap the daughter of one of Osaka’s leading jewel merchants as a means of securing a fabulous prize – the largest diamond in Japan. Being a sporting sort however she sends him notice of her intent to kidnap his daughter, leading him to engage that great detective Akechi Kogorō to protect her.

While this story features a detective, do not expect much, if anything, in the way of detection. The style is really pulpy and layers plenty of plot twists and reversals on top of each other, building a story that seems to get crazier and more outlandish as it goes on. Expect plenty of disguises, identity tricks, lots of random moments of nudity (though these are not described in detail), a truly perverse museum and snakes.

Perhaps my favorite bit of craziness though is the very casual way in which Rampo drops detailed references to some of his other stories as works of fiction, having characters comment on how one plot development is reminiscent of the plots of a celebrated short story. It is all very meta and fits the general arch tone of the piece.

The most striking aspect of the story, other than Akechi himself, is the character of our villain – the Black Lizard. Though her entrance performing a naked dance for her henchmen to the accompaniment of ‘an erotic saxophone’ feels quite ludicrous, Rampo quickly establishes her as smart, ruthless and cunning. While the warning to her victim is silly, I really enjoyed the way that she directly engages with her adversary and that she seems to be as interested in the game she is playing with Akechi as she is in achieving her real goal. It makes for an entertaining, page turning read.

As much as I enjoyed The Black Lizard however, I think Beast in the Shadows is the more interesting work. Though shorter at just a hundred pages, it is both a really cleverly worked detective story and also an early work of ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque nonsense). As Rampo’s career developed his work would increasingly shift in that direction, in part because of demand from his readership, and those themes are often associated with his work for adults.

The story is told by a writer of detective stories who has been approached by a married woman desperate for his help. She tells him that as a teenager she had lost her virginity to a man who became obsessed with her, stalking her and threatening her when their relationship broke down. A sudden move seemed to put a temporary stop to his activities and she subsequently met a merchant and married though she never told him about her prior affair.

Recently however she started to receive letters once again, detailing her movements within the family home and threatening both her life and that of her husband. The narrator visits her home and after making some disturbing discoveries devises a plan to protect her but when her husband ends up dead they worry that she will be next.

Rampo manages to balance the moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

The length of the work makes it hard to offer much detailed comment without getting into spoiler territory. I can say though that the pacing here is as strong as the atmosphere and that I think the two characters we spend the most time with – the narrator and Shizuko, the married woman – are interesting. Though there is one development related to one of the other character’s motives that is only speculated upon rather than clearly established and described as fact.

It is a fascinating and chilling read that for me is worth the price of the collection on its own, offering a view of both sides of Rampo’s writing. This left me excited to read more of Rampo’s work – now I just need to decide where to go next. If you are a fan, please feel free to offer advice!

The Verdict: A fun collection of two novellas. The Black Lizard is pure pulpy thriller stuff and good fun but Beast in the Shadows is a much darker and more interesting work. That story, while shorter, is worth the cost of the collection in itself.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Dangerous Beasts category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong’s blog is a great resource offering a number of posts both about Rampo’s works and also some of the film and television adaptations of them. Though it is now over a decade old, this post about Rampo’s works in translation, then a shorter list, is a nice starting point. There is even a translation of one of his short stories – One Person, Two Identities (Hitori Futayaku).

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Rampo, translated by James B. Harris

Originally Published 1956

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, the first volume of its kind translated into English, is written with the quick tempo of the West but rich with the fantasy of the East. These nine bloodcurdling, chilling tales present a genre of literature largely unknown to readers outside Japan, including the strange story of a quadruple amputee and his perverse wife; the record of a man who creates a mysterious chamber of mirrors and discovers hidden pleasures within; the morbid confession of a maniac who envisions a career of foolproof “psychological” murders; and the bizarre tale of a chair-maker who buries himself inside an armchair and enjoys the sordid “loves” of the women who sit on his handiwork.

Edogawa Rampo, a pseudonym for Tarō Hirai, was one of the giants of Japanese crime fiction in the early-to-mid twentieth century. His name is a phonetic rendering of the name Edgar Allan Poe paying tribute to an author he admired and while his work is certainly original, you only have to dip into these stories to see that they shared a flair for the macabre.

This collection, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, contains a selection of his short stories some of which can be considered mysteries, others feeling more like grotesque adventures. All of the stories show imagination and a flair for unsettling characterizations and imagery.

While The Human Chair is probably Rampo’s best known short story, it is not really much of a mystery. If you are approaching these looking for a good puzzle or story with a twist resolution I would direct you to The Cliff, The Psychological Test and The TwinsThe Red Chamber is also a very entertaining read, describing some very imaginative murders, but I think the resolution goes a twist too far, blunts its impact a little.

A few stories didn’t work for me such as The Caterpillar which feels heavy-handed, even if it does hit some memorable notes in its conclusion. Also The Hell of Mirrors suffers from having an ending that cannot live up to the imagination shown in the creation of its premise. Even these stories though have moments that interest in spite of their flaws.

As a whole I was very impressed with the collection and found it to be an enjoyable and absorbing read. There is a good variety of story types and styles here and I imagine that several of these tales will stay with me for a while. Quite a bit of the author’s work seems to have been translated into English in recent years so I will look forward to seeking more out in the future.

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