Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Secret of the Forgotten Cave

"The bug is to make my fortune."
"The Gold Bug"

Four years ago, I read my first novel written by Kim Nae-seong (1909-1957), who is commonly seen as the father of the Korean detective story. Kim was born one year before the Great Korean Empire was annexed by Japan, and thus he grew up during the period Korea was a colony of Japan. He moved to Japan, where he studied at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo. It was there that he made his debut as a mystery author in 1935 with the short story Daenkei no Kagami, published in the magazine Purofiru (Profile). The story was, of course, written in Japanese, and he'd publish a few more short stories in Japan (reviews/details here) and even meet with some of the major Japanese mystery authors of the period, like Edogawa Rampo, before he returned to Korea where he'd continue his work in the genre (with stories written in Korean this time). Like Rampo, his stories often have a pulp detective adventure feel to them. His detective character Yu Bu-ran in fact is supposed to be named after (Maurice) Leblanc, whose Lupin novels are of course famous examples of pulpy detective adventure stories. For those interested, I also have an English translation of Muma, a non-series short horror-esque story by Kim.

Oh, and a small note, I am not completely sure about the romanization of the names in this review. Most of them will be correct, but from the little I studied of the language, I know sometimes consonants will aspirate or change in other ways in certain combinations and with a name like Baekhui (白姫) for example, I have no idea whether that is the correct romanization, or whether it'd change to Baekkhui or Baekgui or something like that.

Earlier this month, a new translation of two of Kim's better known works was released in Japan. Shirokamen collects two juvenile mysteries written for the Korean audience by Kim in 1937-1938, which are in spirit quite like Edogawa Rampo's Boys Detective Club series. The first of these two stories is the titular Shirokamen, or in Korean Baekgamyeon ("The White Mask"), which is also considered the juvenile mystery title of 30s Korea. The White Mask from the title is a mysterious international thief who wears a white skull mask, who has been succesfully stealing all kinds of artifacts all over the world. Like any decent thief, he (or she!) is always kind enough to send a letter to his potential victims about what he will steal and when, and of course, the White Mask always succeeds despite all the precautions taken. London, New York and Paris have all become victim to the thief, and now the crook has gone to Korea. His latest victim is Professor Gang, the leading scientist of the country who has been working on a very secret project, which should never fall in the wrong hands. After a day at the circus with his son Sugil and his friend Daejun however, Professor Gang is kidnapped by the White Mask despite efforts of Sugil and Daejun. They quickly decide they need to help of the famous mystery author and detective Yu Bu-ran, but after learning he is out for a few days, they decide they themselves have to capture the White Mask. Professor Gang managed to drop his secret notebook with all the plans for his project during the kidnapping, which the children find, but the White Mask is quick to send them a letter to say he will be stealing the notebook from them that day.

You can really tell this is an innocent children's adventure novel the moment you learn that Professor Gang actually wrote SECRET NOTEBOOK on the cover of his notebook.

As a mystery novel Baekgamyeon is mainly about the adventure the boys have and less about the mystery solving. There are the usual Scooby-Doo! shenanigans like wild chases and disguises and an overdramatic narrator who addresses the reader every three or four sentences about how mysterious or baffling events are. The few "mysterious" events (including the disappearance of the secret notebook from the custody of Daejun) are unlikely truly to surprise the (adult) reader, but the adventures Sugil and Daejun have as assistants of Yu Bu-ran are entertaining enough for the juvenile reader. Though I am not quite sure about Yu Bu-ran's qualities as a detective in charge of his own Baker Street Irregulars. At more than a few times it seems like Yu Bu-ran's really bad at taking care of children. During a chase scene with the White Mask for example, he decides to delegate the remainder of the chase to the two children (this happens literally mid-chase), while he himself goes off to do some research within the comforts of his own home. I'm pretty sure that normally, you should not leave two kids to chase after a dangerous thief so you can go home. Yu Bu-ran and the kids have a few skirmishes with the White Mask across the length of the fairly short novel and while eventually, we'll learn the true goal of the phantom thief which is a bit more than meets the eye, there's just too little depth to the novel to truly impress. It's fairly fun as a children's mystery adventure novel, but it doesn't ever leave Scooby-Doo! territory.

The second story in this volume is titled Hwanggeumgul ("The Golden Cave") and starts at an orphanage. Baekhui is a young girl who has been put in the orphanage after the death of her father, and there she becomes friends with the boy Hakjun. She tells Hakjun about the Buddha statue she got from her father before he died. According to her father, he used to travel the world when he was young and one day, he was near the Himalayas when he came across a wounded woman riding a horse on the run for some pursuers. He quickly disguised himself as the woman and hid her, and rode off on the horse to lure the pursuers away. When he came back, he found the woman had died of her injuries, but not without leaving a letter for Baekhui's father, expressing her gratitude for his kind act. She also explained she was of the Kshatriyas caste in India, and that her pursuers were after a family treasure. The hint to the location was hidden within the Buddha statue she left Baekhui's father. After telling this story to Hakjun, the two dream of finding the treasure themselves to help out all orphans, but to Baekhui's great shock, she learns some suspicious Indians have been hanging out near the orphanage. Hakjun goes out to investigate, but never comes back, so Baekhui tells everything to the director of the orphanage, who immediately seeks help with Yu Bu-ran in order to find Hakjun and find Baekhui's treasure.

Yep, this is a treasure hunt story, and as such, has even fewer mystery elements than the first story. This is an all-out adventure and while the hint to the location of the treasure is in code and needs the mind of Yu Bu-ran to be solved, it's not a fair code as it alludes to completely fictional locations and therefore not solvable to the reader. What remains is a rather kooky treasure hunt story where Yu Bu-ran once again proves he should never be in charge of children. Over the course of the story, we learn a group of Indians is after the treasure (and because there are absolutely no other Indians in Korea, every Indian our heroes come across belongs to the criminal group). But what does Yu Bu-ran do? He has Baekhui and Hakjun and even more children from the orphanage tag along as he chases a group of adult Indian criminals across the sea who have already proven earlier in the story they aren't afraid to kill. And then there's a part where there's a shoot-out on an island, and where Yu Bu-ran first tells Baekhui to watch how he'll shoot down one of the Indians, then boasts to the little girl how much fun that was, and when the girl says she's scared (as they are in a friggin' shoot-out), Yu Bu-ran tells her to watch closely again as he'll shoot another Indian.

Yep, Yu Bu-ran is the bad guy here.

I wouldn't say the two novellettes collected in this volume are required reading. They're obviously juvenile mysteries (for the younger part of this group) and they work work enough as such, even if nothing outstanding per se. But I definitely had more fun with the other works by Kim Nae-seong I read earlier, and a novel like Main for example also invokes the adventure novel spirit, but is a bit more engaging than these shorter tales. Considering their similarities with Edogawa Rampo's Boys Detective Club novels however and their position as both works of the father of the Korean mystery story, and as important juvenile mysteries from 30s Korea, it might be interesting to read these books if you want to learn more about those topics.

Original Korean title(s):김내성 (金來成)《백가면과 황금굴(白仮面&黄金窟》

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