無邪気に笑い 踊る君 シェリーを口にする度
妖艶 & 豹変 大人の女に変わってく
妖艶 & 豹変 大人の女に変わってく
Smiling innocently and dancing, every time you put sherry to your lips,
A bewitching transformation, you change into an adult woman
"Miss Mystery" (Breakerz)
Lots of firsts in this review: the first appearance of the first quintessential Japanese master detective, a stor that is commonly regarded as the very first Japanese locked room/location mystery and the first time here I was provided with a review copy by the publisher. And that leads into my very first disclosure message.
Full disclosure: Review copy of Edogawa Rampo's The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō was provided by Kurodahan Press. I have written the introduction to Kurodahan Press' publication of Edogawa Rampo's The Fiend with Twenty Faces (2012).
Maybe I should also disclose that I'm a huge Edogawa Rampo fan. Though I think that should have been quite clear by now considering how often I mention him...
Edogawa Rampo, the father of the Japanese detective story, is a well-known name even outside Japan. I myself have reviewed a lot of his books on this blog and while a lot of the material I discuss here isn't translated, actually quite a lot of Edogawa Rampo's novels are available in English, a great number of them starring his series detective Akechi Kogorō. From early inverted stories like The Pyschological Test (in: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination) and Stalker in the Attic (In: The Edogawa Rampo Reader) and novelettes/novels like The Black Lizard (In: The Black Lizard / Beast in the Shadows) and The Fiend with Twenty Faces, Akechi Kogorō has been quite active in the English world. The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō, released early this month, is the latest in Kurodahan Press' series of English Rampo releases and collects three short stories and one novelette featuring the master detective. As the title suggests, these stories are all early Rampo works and let's be honest: as a writer he was usually a lot better early in his career than later on.
The collection starts with one of the best known titles of Japanese detective stories: The Case of the Murder on D. Hill (1925) is not only Akechi's first appearance, it is also seen as the very first original Japanese locked room mystery. As often with early Rampo stories, D. Hill features a loafing narrator/author avatar who is having a drink with the mysterious Akechi, with whom he recently became acquainted. As they have a chat, they notice something weird is going on in the secondhand bookshop on the other side of the road and when they take a look, they discover the wife of the owner has been murdered. Puzzling however is that nobody seems to have seen anybody suspicious leave the block of houses there.
This was not the first time I've read D. Hill, but I've always appreciated this story more for other elements than its impossible crime angle, which really is a bit weak. Granted: considering that Japanese houses in the period often featured thin paper walls, it's kinda difficult to construct a locked room mystery as seen in Western fiction from the same time period and Rampo's first steps, even if a bit shakey like his name suggests, did serve as an example for others to follow. As such, I think the historical meaning of D. Hill is much more impressive than the pure puzzle. But I actually like the other thing Rampo did much better, which I can't really explain in detail without going in spoilers. But suffice to say that for fans D. Hill does feature early examples of familiar Rampo tropes and that as a first appearance story, it is quite enjoyable. I think that anybody interested in Rampo or Japanese detective fiction should at least read this story.
The Black Hand Gang (1925) is the only story of the collection I had not read in Japanese before and quite enjoyed it. The titular gang of vanguards has been making a name for itself in the capital by kidnapping children of wealthy families for ransom. When the narrator's cousin has been kidnapped too, he asks Akechi to help save her. The plot is simple, but fairly satisfying considering the length of the story and it features quite some enjoyable Rampo tropes, including a fairly ingenious code (that sadly enough is a bit hard to understand if you have no knowledge of Japanese at all). Codes of course are fairly important when discussing Rampo, as it was the main puzzle in his debut story The Two-Sen Copper Coin (available in English in Modanizumu), which is often praised for its ingenious code strongly linked to the Japanese language. The Black Hand Gang is also notable for featuring well, a gang that kidnaps children and who act like phantom thieves: fantastic criminals pop up all the time in Rampo's writings (most notably with The Fiend with Twenty Faces, but also someone like The Black Lizard), while kidnapping...whoo, you could write a whole book just about the number of kidnappings in Rampo's stories! It's like every other creation of Rampo will be kidnapped at some time in the story.
Most of Rampo's stories have fairly simple, to-the-point titles and as you can guess, The Ghost (1925), features a ghost. The ghost of old Tsujidō has been haunting his arch-enemy Hirata: his figure follows Hirata everywhere and despite several measures taken (including double-checking Tsujidō's death and keeping an eye on Tsujidō's son), he still can't explain how the face of a dead man can keep popping up. The solution is almost cheating, though it does involve elements that are actually quite ingenious. Better for its basic idea than the actual execution, I think and easily the weakest story included in the collection.
When Akechi Kogorō made his first appearance The Case of the Murder on D. Hill, he was described as an amateur detective / scholar and this was his image throughout all of his early stories published in 1925. These stories have now all been released in English:
1. The Case of the Murder on D. Hill (In: The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō)
2. The Pyschological Test (In: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination)
3. The Black Hand Gang (In: The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō)
4. The Ghost (In: The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō)
5. The Stalker in the Attic (In: The Edogawa Rampo Reader)
From 1925-1926's serialized novelette The Dwarf on however (the final story in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō), Akechi slowly changed into a gentleman private detective, which is how Akechi is commonly depicted as nowadays. Well, he starts off here dressed in Chinese clothes, but trust me, he'll become the dandy gentleman detective later on. The Dwarf is about the investigation into the role of a mysterious dwarf in the disapperance of Yamano Michiko. And I could write a lot about this novelette here, but I actually already did when I wrote a review of the book when I read it in Japanese two years ago, so I'd like to link to that review (man, I used to write really comprehensive reviews, I noticed just now... publication history, voyeurism and modernism among other topics). The short version: The Dwarf is a feast for those into Rampomania, as it has pretty much all of the important Rampo tropes. As a mystery story it's has its share of faults, but I enjoyed it as a pulpy detective story with a dwarf running around with human limbs. There probably aren't many of them out there, I think.
Overall, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō is a decent collection. The Black Hand Gang and The Ghost aren't the most impressive of Rampo's short stories, but The Case of the Murder on D. Hill and The Dwarf are great additions to Rampo's English library: D. Hill has great value in the history of Japanese detective fiction, while The Dwarf is a fun pulpy detective in the spirit of The Fiend with Twenty Faces and The Black Lizard. I still think Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the best introduction of Rampo available, but for those who have developed a love for Rampo's pulpy detectives, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō offers more of his early work.
Finally, I really gotta ask this: I'm pretty sure that the cover is supposed to be based on The Dwarf, but I can't possibly be the only one who was thinking of the moon of Majora's Mask, right?!