オレンジ色した 極楽特急に乗り込んで 彼に会いに行くよ
Stepping into the orange heaven express, I go to my boyfriend
Passing stations at an incredible speed
To his small room
It's no use talking to me, as my heart is not here
Speeding up to a million kilometers, towards him
"Love's Heaven Express" (Kojima Mayumi)
Like I said in the previous post, I can always rely on Edogawa Rampo. Struck down by a cold and confined to my bed, I spent the last two days going through some works of that old master of Japanese mystery fiction. Most of Rampo's work might be quite different from orthodox detective fiction, the main focus at this blog, but I always make an exception for Rampo.Which reminds me, Rampo is pretty much the only writer where I have to read up a bit on a story before I actually start reading it. Why? Because Rampo was not the most consistent of writers, even having several unfinished stories. You really have to be careful with Rampo sometimes. Anyway, this time I took a look at two (relatively) early orthodox detective stories by Rampo.
Nisen Douka ("The Two Sen Copper Coin") is commonly known as Rampo's debut work and widely praised as the first truly original Japanese detective story when it was first published in 1923 in the magazine Shinseinen. Rampo however wrote Ichimai no Kippu ("A Single Ticket") simultenously with Nisen Douka. So why is only the latter known as Rampo's debut work? The editors at Shinseinen thought that the story of Ichimai no Kippu was too good and suspected that Rampo had based it on some foreign story! The plot of Nisen Douka revolves around a code that was purely Japanese, so the editors had no doubts about the authenticity of that story, but there was nothing typical Japanese in Ichimai no Kippu, so the publication was delayed as the editors researched whether it was based on a different story. It wasn't.
Structurally, the story of Ichimai no Kippu resembles its more famous twin brother Nisen Douka. Both stories are built around the conversation of two people (the story-telling party (not the narrator) and a listening party) who participate in some kind of amateur detecting. In this story, the listener (Matsumura) is told the details of a murder case by his friend Souda. The eminent professor Tomita, a person Souda respects as a scholar, has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of his wife, who was ran over by the train near their home. It was found out that the wife was drugged and further police investigation made it seem like the professor did away with his wife. Souda however suspects that the professor is innocent, based on the discovery of a train ticket he found near the scene of the crime. The next day, Matsumura is astonished to find a letter of Souda published in the newspaper, revealing the truth behind the case, all based on a single ticket.
This is actually quite an ingeneous story by Rampo. It is short, but it is pretty impressive, which has a lot to do with Rampo's gift for storytelling. His plots might not have been always that good, but he sure could write. Many years may have passed, but there is something timeless to his writings. Which you could also say of stories by Doyle and Christie, but there have been tremendous changes in both the written and spoken Japanese language since 1920, with modernization, great social changes and the Second World War as examples, but Rampo's work does not feel as nearly as old as contemporary Japanese writings. Yay for mass fiction!
The plot of Ichimai no Kippu is also quite good. The story is split in two parts (the details of the case and then the explanation by Souda), mirroring a problem / challenge to the reader structure and while it is not completely fair, the plot is (almost surprisingly) logical and satisfying. Realizing that Rampo wrote this in 1923 as one of his two debut works, as an original attempt at what was until then a purely Western literary genre, Ichimai no Kippu is an impressive short story and I think I actually like this story more than Nisen Douka, due to its more serious tone (though the conclusion to Nisen Douka is admittedly a classic, even among Rampo's work).
Ichimai no Kippu also resembles Rampo's later story Nanimono ("Who?") (translation available), with its focus on footsteps in wet ground and other similar clues and story developments. As a whole, I think Ichimai no Kippu is a better story, but Nanimono is still pretty awesome as an orthodox detective story written in a time when Rampo kinda stopped writing those kind of stories.
The narrator is residing at the Lakeside Pavillion, a small hostel in the mountains (facing a lake) to recover from a nervous breakdown. It does not take long for him to be utterly bored and hoping to find some excitement in this place, he remembers he has taken a peculiar invention of his with him on this trip. The narrator has always had a fascination for lenses and he once built a portable peek-machine, a contraption of lenses and mirrors which would allow him peek at places unnoticed. A kind of webcam. He sets the contraption so he is able to look into the dressing room (for the bath) from his own room and spends his days on voyeurism. Until one day, he sees a woman being murdered in the bathroom! He runs to the scene of the crime, only to find out that there is no trace of murderer, victim or even blood in the bathroom. Was it just a dream? The next day however, he discovers that a woman has disappeared and our narrator starts wondering what he did see in his mirror-contraption.
And then things happen. Hey, it is a serialized novel so stuff had to happen every installment and Rampo really just came up with stuff everytime, until he thought he should wrap things up.
A lot of Rampo's protagonists are probably what we nowadays call hikikomori or otaku, with their tendencies to stay inside their room focusing on sometimes bizarre interests. These characters know they are what many would call abnormal, but they seem to have peace with that and just live their lives the way they want to, spending time with what they like. Rampo's descriptions of the psychology characters is really good though and really captivating. Rampo himself had a fascination for lenses, cameras and other apperati that change ones views on 'reality' and this is I think one of the first stories where he really goes into that subject. The description of the narrator of Kohantei Jiken of his love for lenses is bizarre, almost grotesque, yet very amusing and appealing. There is something alluring to the idea of a single sheet of glass changing the surroundings into an almost inrecognizable world. Other famous lens/mirror lovers in Rampo works are the "him" from Kagami Jigoku (1926, "The Hell of Mirrors") and Ookawara Yumiko from Kenin Gengi.
In Kohantei Jiken, the lenses and mirrors are used to peek into the dressing room. Voyeurism is also a big theme in Rampo's work, with the most famous examples being the inverted detective story Yaneura no Sanposha (1925, "The Walker in the Attic"), featuring a man who peeks on his fellow inhabitants of a lodge house from the loft, and the horror story Ningen Isu (1925, "The Human Chair"), where a craftsman builds himself into a chair, allowing him to have very close physical contact with however sits on him. This time though, the voyeur is not the criminal in the story (though peeking is also a crime).
Like I said before, for a mostly improvised story, Kohantei Jiken isn't even that bad. Yes, there are some plotlines that seem to go nowhere, as if Rampo forgot them as he wrote every installment, but most of the plots comes neatly together near the end and includes the classical surprise twist ending Rampo loves so much. The first part, highly focusing on the narrator's fascination for lenses, is probably the best (and most original) part of the story though. While this is mostly an original story, there were some instances, besides the above mentioned themes in Rampo's work, where I suspected that Rampo re-used some plot-elements from earlier stories (in highly rewritten contexts though). All in all though, this is an enjoyable story.
Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『一枚の切符』 『湖畔亭事件』