Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Magical Mystery Enemies

"That's all magic is, an illusion."
"Jonathan Creek"

I thought it had been several years since I last read a Rampo, but it wasn't even that long ago that I read the excellent Yuureitou. Guess I forgot because it wasn't about Akechi.

After defeating the crazy murderer the Spider-Man in the novel Kumo Otoko (1929-1930), amateur detective Akechi Kogorou decided to take a long deserved holiday, resting at a lakeside hotel. There he becomes friends with Taeko, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy jeweler Tamamura Zentarou. After she returned to Tokyo, Akechi of course hoped he'd be able to meet her again, but he couldn't have guessed their reunion would come so soon: Akechi is contacted by the police, who want his help involving a mysterious threatening case. At first, Akechi refused, until he learns that it involves Fukunaga Tokujirou, the uncle of Taeko. Letters with numbers counting down have been appearing in the man's house every day now, and Fukunaga is afraid that once the countdown reaches zero, something horrible will happen. Akechi takes the first train back to Tokyo, but he's immediately kidnapped by an unknown party and during Akechi's absence, Fukunaga is murdered inside his locked bedroom by apparently a gigantic man. It seems like Akechi's latest foe can truly make the impossible possible and stopping this fiend won't be easy in Edogawa Rampo's Majutsushi ("The Magician", 1930).

After a series of short stories with the amateur detective Akechi Kogorou, Edogawa Rampo (father of the Japanese detective story) also had Akechi appear in novels. Akechi'd slowly transform from a bookish student to an amateur detective, to a dandy gentleman detective over the course of his career, with Majutsushi still being set in his amateur days, though he finally opens a true detective agency at the end of this novel. Akechi also meets his future assistant/wife in this novel, who's often an active character in subsequent Akechi novels, as well as in the Boys Detective Club series, so for fans of the character Akechi Kogorou, Majutsushi is a must-read for fleshing out his life.

Rampo had Akechi confront a terrifying, almost inhuman murderer in the thriller Kumo Otoko (1929-1930) and Majutsushi continues with that trend. In fact, most Akechi novels pit him against some kind of superfiend, like a Scooby Doo! monster, with whom Akechi will have several confrontations over the course of the story. This is also what happens in Majutsushi, where Akechi sometimes outwits, and sometimes is outwitted by a murderer who appears in front of Akechi as a circus magician, and who is hell-bent on killing all members of the Tamamura family. Besides the silly super-criminal trope, you also have the usual Rampo tropes here, like a focus on voyeurism, with several of the murders being displayed in public in all their goriness. Like I mentioned in my review of Issunboushi, exhibitionism, and a delayed realization of that plays a big role in Rampo's detective stories. In Majutsushi too, the eponymous Magician stages for some of his murders (or chopped off body parts) to appear in public, and usually people first look at it, find it odd, and only after that, it slowly starts to dawn upon them that what they just saw, was something horrible. Lenses and mirrors are also a Rampo-thing, and true enough, mirrors also appear in this story (not so curious of course, considering Akechi is fighting a magician).

As a mystery story, it's a bit like most Rampo novels, that is, not particularly memorable. Majutsushi is a serialized novel, and give it some credit, this is one of the better plotted ones by Rampo because with most of his other serialized novels, you can really tell he's simply winging things as he's going, while Majutsushi is actually reasonably tightly plotted, but still, the whole thing feels like a somewhat unambitious pulpy thriller. Most of the events that happen are just there to 'shock' the reader, even though they never really do, and the few truly horrifying scenes we get, are taken from Edgar Allan Poe stories (which Rampo also points out in his own look back at this novel). The locked room murder at the start of the novel has a silly, uninspired solution that Rampo has actually used in other novels in better ways, and other events in this novel aren't about detecting anymore, but at "look at how gruesome that is!". This is a pulp thriller, a very pulpy one at that too, but not nearly as entertaining as other Rampo pulps like Kurotokage.

There's a juvenile version of this novel by the way, also titled Majutsushi, set in the Boys Detective Club series. Rampo rewrote several of his stories as juvenile stories for this series starring the young assistant of Akechi Kogorou, Kobayashi.

So overall, Majutsushi is very typical of a Rampo serialized novel, that is, it's an incredibly pulpy story brimming with Rampo's trademark tropes. Judged solely on its mystery plot, Majutsushi does nothing particularly special, even if it tries to throw some surprises at the reader, but overall, I think this novel is most notable for its place in the Akechi timeline, establishing both the background of his future wife and Akechi's move to a professional private detective.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩『魔術師』

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