Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Gold Solution

The Real Folk Blues
The Real Folk Blues (山根麻衣)

The Real Folk Blues
I just want to know real happiness
Not all that glitters is gold
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

The new Detective Conan film looks awesome! At least, the story seems, like Countdown to Heaven and The Raven Chaser before it, somewhat related to the bigger storyline, so excited! Now if only I can get myself in Japan around April...

Edogawa Rampo's Ougon Kamen ("The Golden Mask") is named after a mysterious figure wearing the titular item, a golden mask with only a set of slit eyes and a giant smile as its face. The Golden Mask has been responsible for the most audicious thefts in recent memory and is also considered the main suspect for several murders. The police has no idea of how to stop the illustrious thief, and the matter seems to turn into an international affair when the Golden Mask threatens to rob the French ambassador. But celebrated detective Akechi Kogorou is also involved and he claims he knows who the mysterious figure is, just based on the discovery of a note with the initials A.L.

Okay, I'll just spoil it now: it is Arsene Lupin. Yes, it was the famous French gentleman thief who had been making trouble in Tokyo wearing a golden mask. Of course, most people who read Ougon Kamen now, read it because they know Arsene Lupin appears in it, so it's not that big a spoiler.

Maurice LeBlanc famously pitted a certain consulting detective against his Arsene Lupin; Edogawa Rampo in turn pitted Lupin against his Akechi Kogorou. LeBlanc was forced to chance the name of this consulting detective to something less dangerous in the courtroom, but with the more lax copyright rules at the time (and most likely also the smaller market and people simply not knowing of the book), Lupin has always stayed Lupin in Ougon Kamen (though TV adaptations wisely didn't use his name).

Anyway, the basic idea shouldn't be hard to guess. Over the course of the novel, Akechi and Lupin have several skirmishes, each party trying to outsmart the other. As with practically all of Rampo's serialized novels, he seems to improvise most of the time, and what you get is a chaotic series of entertaining confrontations between the two. Nothing too deep, but simply fun to read. Especially one part in the middle, which takes place during a party styled after Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of Red Death, is great stuff, as well as a climax that has elements of both the Lupin and Akechi series.

Ougon Kamen was written in 1930-1931, so it is not hard to see how the fight between Arsene Lupin and Akechi Kogorou seemed to have inspired the creation of the Fiend with Twenty Faces (1936), Rampo's own thief-and-master-in-disguises. In fact, the Lupin in Ougon Kamen has some character elements that seem more like the Fiend, than the actual Lupin. Sure, Ougon Kamen's Lupin is still very popular among women, but he is also a bit more ruthless, a bit more willing to shed blood than the real Lupin. Akechi says this might be because Lupin doesn't consider Asians worthy of the same courtesy he shows his own countrymen, but still, this is a weird Lupin. But it's not hard to guess why: Akechi Kogorou is the protagonist, so Lupin has to appear as an actual villain for you to root for Akechi (the same happened to that consulting detective in LeBlanc's crossovers...). In the end we're left with a Lupin who is mostly like Lupin, but also a Lupin who obviously serves as a prototype for the Fiend. I think that Akechi Kogorou himself commented that the Lupin in Ougon Kamen was weird in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Meitantei ga Oosugiru (the legal nightmare crossover with Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Maigret and Akechi Kogorou vs. the Fiend with the Twenty Faces and Arsene Lupin).
Ougon Kamen is like most of Rampo's serialized novels a bit of a chaotic mess, but the kind of mess that is fun, amusing and bound to leave a smile on your face. It's written for the masses, which is not a bad thing per se, and the childish ideas might not be for everyone, but I know I was amused from start to finish.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『黄金仮面』


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun. It is strange that today Lupin is better known in Japan than in the West, but I notice that the Japanese tend to conserve something once they get it.

    1. Part of it is helped by the immense popularity of the series Lupin III, I think. But indeed, a lot of the classics are actually easier to get hold of in Japan than outside it, so it's natural more people would know the name.

  2. I wish this book was available in english or french :(

    1. Rampo is a relatively often translated writer, so maybe in the future?