「誰にも理解されず。 誰にも理解を求めず。 他人を頼らず己を頼み。自分を食い潰しながら生きていく」
"Without understanding anyone. Without asking anyone for understanding. Relying on no one, relying on oneself. Living on while living off one self"
If I were to plot a graph of when I make posts here against when I am busy with exams and papers, I think it show that I actually tend to post more often when I am busy. My theory: I am usually quite lazy and good at doing absolutely nothing in my free time: so when I actually have to get active (because I have to write papers / study), I also tend to read more books / write more posts. Or I am just good at not studying.
Issunboushi were considered full-length novels at the time of their publication, contemporary readers regard them more like novellas. Therefore, Edogawa Rampo's Kotou no Oni ("The Demon of the Lonely Island") is now commonly seen as his first real full-length novel. It is also often regarded as one of his best, if not his very best novel, an opinion I don't share completely, but I can certainly see why readers would regard it as such. Originally serialized in 1929, Kotou no Oni starts with our narrator Minoura, a young, not particularly attractive man, falling in love with his co-worker Hatsuyo, who returns his feelings. Their relation is not completely without troubles however, with the biggest problem being Moroto, a well-educated doctor-friend of Minoura who harbors amorous feelings for him. Moroto seemingly tries to sabotage Minoura and Hatsuyo's relation and it should not come as a big surprise that Minoura suspects Moroto of being a murderer when Hatsuyo is one day found murdered in her house. A completely locked house.
Minoura asks his friend Miyamagi, an amateur detective, to investigate the murder of Hatsuyo and it doesn't take long for Miyamagi to discover a truly inferious plot surrounding Hatsuyo's murder. But before he is able to tell Munoura more about the case, Miyamagi is murdered. On a public beach. During the day. Surrounded by families who had come for a sunny day on the beach. And under the watchful eye of Miyamagi. Who is this monster who is able to murder people like that in impossible circumstances!
And this was just the first half of the novel. Things get really weird afterwards. Which is to be expected from Rampo. What starts out as a fairly orthodox detective with two murders commited under impossible circumstances, evolves into a science-fiction boys adventure mystery with sexual deviant themes. And I have to admit. It works. I have no idea how Rampo pulled it off, but it somehow _works_. Kotou no Oni is as chaotic and deviant as the themes it addresses, incorporating pretty much all the motifs Rampo used in his stories, including orthodox detecting, people hiding in stuff, sexual deviance, physical impairments, secret codes and treasure hunting, abnormal fixations, Japanese architecture, public showing of murder (victims), 'circus freaks' and a lot more, but it does not break despite all this weight.
Though I have to admit that I was quite surprised by the way Rampo played with the amateur detective trope. The amateur detective is a character who is featured a lot in Rampo's stories and even Akechi Kogorou started out as nothing more than an amateur with a knack for analytic reasoning. The way Miyamagi gets killed off early in the story is actually quite shocking, as he was presented as a really gifted amateur detective, who did not differ from Rampo's other amateurs (who don't get killed off).
Anywy, Kotou no Oni works despite its chaos, and that is definitely largely because of Rampo's writing style. I somehow forget it every time, so I get surprised every time I pick up one of his books, but Rampo was a master in storytelling. The conversations, the 'spoilers' he gives you to entice to continue reading, the mysterious events that pique your interests, the way the story keeps on evolving, it might not be suited for a real orthodox detective, but it sure keeps your eyes glued on the pages. You would hardly guess that it was pre-war literature (and yes, there is a much more profound difference in pre and postwar Japanese fiction in terms of writing style compared to English fiction).
I liked the first half, with the impossible murders, the best. Here Rampo sticks quite strongly to the orthodox detective model and while the locked room murder of Hatsuyo slightly resembles another famous story by him, I do consider it an interesting locked room trick if one realizes when and where Kotou no Oni was written. The beach murder works actually wonderful in conjunction with the Hatsuyo murder, because the the solutions to the murders, while completely different, really do rely on the same hint and the moment you realize the solution of one murder, you see the implications for the other murder. In that sense, Rampo really succeeded in connecting the two murders, instead of just writing stuff just as he was going (a tendency he has shown quite often in the past). The solution to the two murders is revealed at the end of the first half of this novel, also signalling the change in tone of the novel.
The second half moves away from the orthodox detecting and we are introduced to a swashbuckling science fiction adventure on the titular lonely island. Kotou no Oni was one of the major sources for the movie Horrors of Malformed Men, so people familiar with that infamous movie might not be surprised to hear about stuff like an island full of physically impaired people and ideas like one half of a Siamese twin falling in love with the other half. We also have a treasure hunt inside the caves under the island and an evil mastermind called Otottsan ("Father". No, no that Father). This is Rampo really giving in to his grotesque writing mode (as opposed to his orthodox detective writing mode), but like I said before: the shift does not feel too abrupt. Abstractly seen, Kotou no Oni actually follows Rampo's own evolution as a writer, from orthodox detective stories to more grotesque stories (that still rely strongly on a mystery theme). But the two parts definitely make up one whole and the little details spread over the two parts that comprise this story also shows that Rampo did actually plan this story up to a certain extent as a whole.
For those interested in a more academic reading of Kotou no Oni, there is a paper written by Reichert (‘Deviance and Social Darwinism in Edogawa Ranpo’s Erotique-Grotesque Thriller “Kotō no Oni”", see the attic) which addresses the themes of (sexual) deviance in the novel. It spoils everything of the novel though, so only for those who don't care about being spoiled, or those who are not planning to read the novel anyway. Which also brings me to the question: I am pretty sure that this is a fairly early example of modern detective fiction that addresses homosexuality, but is the earliest? I mean, it is not just hinted that Moroto is gay, he is without a doubt presented as a man having strong romantic and sexual feelings for Minoura. Rampo is often quoted as a writer whose work features homosexuality, but Kotou no Oni is as far as I know the only story where it is not just simply implied (c.f. Issunboushi, which starts with an 'enigmatic' meeting between two men in a park which features a lot of hinting).
I wouldn't recommended Kotou no Oni as a detective story, but this novel is definitely Rampo. It features pretty all of his major themes and motifs (excluding his adolescent fiction, of course), but it doesn't feel as chaotic as you would expect it to be. In fact, for a Rampo novel, it feels remarkably as a whole and I can definitely see why people would rank Kotou no Oni as one of Rampo's best works.
Original Japanese title(s): 江戸が乱歩 『孤島の鬼』