‘Gold Mask’ by Edogawa Rampo (Review)

It may look as if I review anything remotely related to Japanese literature here at my site, especially during January in Japan, but that’s not strictly true as I can be rather selective in what I cover.  The majority of my choices are literary fiction, and I tend to avoid some areas that others are happy to promote, such as diaspora writing and genre fiction.  However, today’s book is definitely something a little different for me, and that always entails a fair amount of risk, with the chances of being disappointed far higher than usual.  So, was today’s book worth the gamble?  Let’s find out…

Edogawa Rampo was a twentieth-century writer known both for tales with rather adult themes and for a series of detective stories, many of which feature the private detective Akechi Kogorō, a Tokyo-based sleuth who has much in common with Sherlock Holmes.  All detectives need an archenemy, and Akechi is no exception, with many of his later cases involving the cunning Fiend with Twenty Faces, a master of disguise who crosses swords with the famous detective on several occasions.

However, the novel Gold Mask (translated by William Varteresian, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press) sees our hero up against a very different foe.  Tokyo is in a feverish state after multiple sightings of a mysterious stranger, a figure dressed in a golden cape and hiding his (or her) face behind a gruesome mask, all around the city.  This tension explodes when the mysterious stranger manages to pull off a heist at a major trade fair, stealing a valuable Japanese pearl from under the noses of the police and then somehow escaping from an impossible situation when cornered.

Although it takes a little time, there’s never any doubt that Akechi will take an interest in the affair, and the famous detective is soon hot on the burglar’s trail.  However, the criminal proves hard to catch, and our hero eventually makes a startling, and worrying, discovery.  The man he’s chasing is none other than the famous French gentleman-burglar Arsène Lupin, and having been disturbed by Akechi, the foreigner has vowed to put an end to his interference once and for all…

For those who don’t know, Arsène Lupin is the creation of French writer Maurice Leblanc, and the character is very well-known in Japan (although much of this has to do with the manga and animé Lupin III, which features a character claiming to be the original Lupin’s grandson).  The ingenious thief is a man of many talents, and a charismatic character who can charm those around him:

“Well, you’d better be as thorough as you can.  The more difficult it is, the more impressive his marvelous skill will appear.  You called him a golden devil, didn’t you?  Yes, he could be a demon.  Supermen are always mistaken for devils rather than gods.  But what a lovely devil he is.  Gold mask!  Even just the sound of his name makes my heart thrill.”
p.85 (Kurodahan Press, 2019)

Gold Mask, then, is a crossover event pitting Rampo’s master detective against Leblanc’s genius thief, and if anyone finds that a little distasteful, perhaps I should let you know that Leblanc himself wrote about Lupin’s struggles with a certain Herlock Sholmès!

While Gold Mask is a novel, it was originally serialised in a magazine, and this is evident from its rather episodic nature and the many short chapters ending in cliff-hangers (such as when Gold Mask is spotlighted at the top of a tower, trapped).  It’s also less one overarching story than a series of main events linked by the conflict between Akechi and Lupin.  The balance of power frequently swings from one side to the other, as each of the men is outwitted, trapped and taken prisoner, only to miraculously turn the tables in a later chapter.

Crime fiction isn’t a genre I’m familiar with, but Varteresian does a great job in making this all readable in English, borrowing from a number of sources for his version.  In fact, the tone is almost more like a television voiceover at times:

What could it mean?  The frighteningly expressionless golden mask, the daredevil, unparalleled strength like some steel machine, and now this mysterious voice.  But then, a lifeless robot could hardly act with such unrestricted freedom. (p.29)

What it often reminded me of was something like the original Batman TV series, or short serials from the golden age of cinema, in which the narrator worries about the fate of the hero along with the audience.

The same goes for the action, too, which moves us swiftly from one crisis to the next.  Mysteries are set up, solved and then forgotten in a few pages, and the overwhelming sensation is of a larger-than-life tale, excitement for the masses:

The monster raised his dagger, aiming for the lady’s well-rounded bosom.  The pitiful resistance of a feeble woman’s last moments.  The lady’s writhing, floundering hands struck the monster’s face, bent close over her, with a loud clack.  At that impact, what should happen but that the gold mask tumbled off!
The monster gave a cry and hurriedly replaced his mask, but, for an instant, the lady had clearly seen the monster’s true identity.
“You!” The Lady shouted in shock and hatred. (p.41)

If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, there’s lots more where that came from, including hand-to-hand combat, car chases and shots ringing out into the Tokyo darkness.

Despite all the fun, if I’m honest, I’d have to say Gold Mask wasn’t really for me.  It’s all action, with no real psychological development, and it can be a little predictable, too, as it’s often easy to predict where we’re going next.  Surprisingly, though, Rampo himself admits as much in one of the commentaries included here.  He says that he was restricted by writing for a popular magazine whose editors demanded a story that would appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and elsewhere I’ve heard that Akechi’s other stories are perhaps a little more sophisticated.

Still, Gold Mask is a fun way to while away a couple of hours, and for those of you who do like detective fiction, it might be worth checking out.  Also, if Rampo is a writer you’d like to know more about, then Kurodahan have you covered, with several books collecting his work available.  There are more of his master detective’s adventures featured in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō (tr. Varteresian) as well as some later stories involving Akechi’s Boy Detectives Club in The Fiend with Twenty Faces (tr. Dan Luffey).  A couple of short novels with more adult themes are included in The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (tr. Ian Hughes), and finally, there’s a collection of stories and essays in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (tr. Seth Jacobowitz).  That’s plenty to keep any Rampo fan going, so if that sounds interesting, you know where to go 🙂

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