Books / Reviews

Dark thoughts and macabre tales

Edogawa Rampo's essays reveals some of the inspiration behind his mystery fiction

by David Cozy

As a boy, Edogawa Rampo was, as he relates in one of the essays included in this collection, a devotee of popular fiction. Entering the fantastic twists and turns of his stories we are soon lost in them just as, when boys and girls ourselves, we became the characters in the romances and adventures we devoured.

THE EDOGAWA RAMPO READER by Edogawa Rampo, edited and translated by Seth Jacobowitz, preface by Tatsumi Takayuki. Fukuoka: Kurodahan Press, 2008, 241 pp., $16 (paper)

To fully grasp Rampo’s achievement, however, we need to read both his stories and essays. Kurodahan Press, in making available this exquisitely translated and edited collection of both fiction and nonfiction, has, therefore, done readers a tremendous service.

The essays, in giving us a glimpse of the mind behind the fiction, help us to understand what it is that makes the stories more than escapist ephemera. Rampo reveals, for example, in a 1926 piece, that motion pictures seemed to him “the dreams of an opium addict,” “a weird, gloomy world from which, struggle as you might, you can never awaken.” That he later found (in a 1927 piece) the “disembodied voices” emanating from phonographs, radios, and telephones equally unsettling reveals a sensibility alarmed by aspects of modernity that most of his urban contemporaries surely took for granted.

Rampo transposes his unease into a more lurid key in most of his tales. But because his discomfort is real, the thrills and chills in his imagined narratives seem earned rather than, as in so much genre fiction, gratuitous.

In “The Daydream,” for example, the protagonist recounts wandering the city with “only a vague recollection whether I was passing through on an errand or had just gone out for a stroll” and finds himself “on the outskirts of a certain part of town.” There he stumbles upon a group of people, “their faces . . . lit with a particular kind of smile, the sort people adopt when watching a farcical comedy,” gathered around an old man who is telling how he murdered his wife and then mummified her, converting her into what he judges a “lovely wax doll.” “Dizzily” at the tale’s end, the wandering protagonist staggers away from this horrible confession, aghast at what he has heard and seen, but even more horrified at his fellow citizens’ inappropriate reaction.

We stagger with him, understanding better the anxiety occasioned by city life and the odd characters and situations it throws in one’s way. In the rural villages, where many of the city dwellers had roots, it would have been impossible to find oneself adrift in an unknown part of town, lost among strangers and the strange. In the metropolis such moments are unavoidable.

The metropolis, because it cannot be encompassed in the consciousness the way a village might be, offers up mysteries, and, in fiction at least, sleuths who attempt to untangle these urban conundrums. Rampo’s detective is Akechi Kogoro, who Tatsumi Takayuki calls “the Japanese version of . . . Sherlock Holmes.”

As happens in some of Dr. Watson’s accounts of Holmes’ cases, most notably, “A Study in Scarlet,” Akechi is off stage for much of “The Stalker in the Attic,” but we hardly miss him, so enthralled — even as we are appalled — by Goda Saburo, the murderer at the tale’s center.

The quintessential rootless urbanite, Goda not only lives among strangers in rooming houses, but also moves obsessively from one to the next, “wander[ing] like a nomad.” Meeting Akechi by chance, Goda is fascinated, delighted even, by the detective’s “wealth of fascinating crime stories.” Indeed, so caught up does he become in Akechi’s tales of murder that he begins, himself, to simulate criminal acts.

His simulations inevitably move into the realm of reality, but the actual method that Goda adopts to murder — for no particular reason — a fellow lodger is as unexpected as it is macabre. Let it suffice to say that the murderer-to-be’s realization that he can spit through a hole in the attic floor into the gaping mouth of the sleeper below comes into it.

Some may react to Rampo’s tales just as the murderer Goda does to Akechi’s, with “an indescribable feeling as if these tales of crime were vividly floating up before his eyes, like a gaudy, gorgeously illustrated picture scroll.”

One hopes, of course, that no one will be driven to commit the same act as Goda. Or that the fascination of the fiction will lead readers to neglect the essays. The memoir “My Love for the Printed Word,” for example, in its recounting of Rampo’s years as a literarily inclined part-time worker, bouncing from print shop to bookshop to periodical, is fascinating: a sort of “New Grub Street,” Japanese style. The piece on Edgar Allan Poe’s (the author from whom Rampo derived his pseudonym) encounter with Charles Dickens, and Poe’s reaction to Barnaby Rudge, is alone worth the price of admission.