Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Novel Reviews - Edogawa Rampo (Tales of Mystery)

I'm a fairly voracious reader. When I was in school, I read all of my textbooks (in some cases, twice) while waiting for the teachers to cover the materials in class. When I reached about 16, I entered a phase where I read nothing but mysteries from Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout and Arthur Conan Doyle. Afterwards, I started up science fiction and fantasy, consuming everything by Arthur Clark, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and others. Then, around 1990, I began my ventures into manga and anime.

I've never been a big fan of "literature", although I have read some Shakespeare, Voltaire, Neitchze and Socrates. I've read a little Edgar Allen Poe, but just enough to realize that I prefer the movie "Fall of the House of Usher" to the short story. But, "literature" and straight fiction leave me cold.

In short, while I've lived in Japan close to 3 years total now, I haven't bothered to learn about anyone other than certain favorite manga artists and anime directors. But, as I encounter on my job more Japanese students, I'm introduced to more of the Japanese writers that they enjoy reading. So, I put in a request for a few English-translated novels written by some of the more famous authors as a means to kind of catch up on what I've been missing. As a result, I received 3 mystery novels as Christmas presents. I'll review them here over the next few days.

Edogawa Rampo: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, translated by James Harris; Grade: B

Edogawa Rampo is the psuedonym of Taro Hirai (1894-1965), accredited as Japan's first real mystery writer. He took his name from Edgar Allen Poe, one of his heroes. As such, many of his early short stories have a "Poe-like" feel, with their concentration on the twisted, and the pursuit of the perfect crime.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the title of the 1956 English publication of 9 of Rampo's stories. Rampo could read English, but he couldn't speak or write it. His translator, Harris, could speak Japanese but couldn't read it. Between the two of them, it took 5 years to write the English version of this book and to get Rampo's final sign-off on it. So, it's hard to tell whether the flaws in the writing are due to Harris' lack of skill, Rampo's meddling, or the fact that it came out in 1956, when overly-florid writing was common. As you can probably tell, I'm critical of this book.

Each of the nine stories are stand-alone and unrelated to others. "The Human Chair" is a horror story about a cabinet maker that uses a Trojan horse-like chair to infiltrate a hotel as a thief, then gets attracted to the sensation of various people sitting on him all day. "The Psychological Test" is a Poe-like mystery where an amateur detective trips up a masterful killer in a series of mind games. And, "The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture" tells a story of love and passion ala the "Twilight Zone". The stories are all creative, and I often had trouble predicting how they'd turn out. They were also all fast reads - I finished the 220 pages in about 6 hours.

The problem is that rather than just let the story carry us into the realm of fear and dread, we're kind of led by the nose towards it, with lines like (she opened the letter) "and it contained another breath-taking surprise", and "Putting my wicked plot into operation (...)". To me, the writing is overblown. But, there's still a lot of creativity here, and it'd be a mistake to dismiss the stories out of hand just because of the English used.

Summary: Edogawa Rampo can be called the father of Japanese mystery writing, and "Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination" is a good introduction to his earlier short works. If you like his namesake, Edgar Allen, or you want to know more about Japanese literature, this is a good place to start. Recommended.

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