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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gold Mask

Edogawa Rampo

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To purchase Gold Mask

Title: Gold Mask
Author: Edogawa Rampo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1931 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 224 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Gold Mask - US
Gold Mask - UK
Gold Mask - Canada
  • Japanese title: 黄金仮面
  • First published serially 1930-1
  • Translated and with an Introduction by William Varteresian

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Our Assessment:

B- : much of it too simple and rough, but interesting literary-culturally

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Gold Mask is a novel pitting Edogawa Rampo's famous amateur detective Akechi Kogorō -- and the Japanese police -- against a larger than life criminal mastermind known as Gold Mask (noteworthy for his appearance, keeping his face hidden and his identity concealed behind a gold mask). Originally published serially, it proceeds in somewhat slapdash manner, with some somewhat forced cliffhangers and rather too many seemingly impossible but surprisingly easy escapes, but generates some excitement along the way, especially then as the novel's two adversaries circle closer in on each other.
       The novel begins with the mysterious Gold Mask making a play for: "the pride of Japanese pearls", on display at a great national exhibition. Snatching the pearl is fairly easily accomplished, but the escape in the crowded and well-guarded grounds more of a challenge -- though given that it's the first episode in a novel titled Gold Mask readers can expect he'll make it, somehow or other. Edogawa has some typical fun with how he gets his character out of this seemingly hopeless situation -- a performance of a comedy in the adjacent music hall about none else than that talk-of-the-town: "new-age phantom Gold Mask", for example, proves particularly convenient ..... Still, Edogawa corners -- seemingly hopelessly, and certainly with no (obvious) way out -- his villain, easy pickings for the police. And yet he eludes them.
       Here already Edogawa presents some of Gold Mask's bag of tricks, including the use of sedatives so that those meant to be on guard fall asleep as well as disguises beyond just the gold mask, allowing him to take the place of others unnoticed. All well and good -- but Edogawa has Gold Mask use these particular tricks rather too often, which comes to feel a bit lazy. Too bad: some of the other tricks he comes up with are clever (if not necessarily entirely plausible) invention, notably a whole room in which one grand confrontation takes place.
       The second appearance of Gold Mask is at the provincial residence of a Lord Washio, who has his own art museum there, and invites the new French ambassador, Rouzières, to visit. The 'Gold Mask'-phenomenon has all Japan on edge, and here too there are concerns about sightings of him -- cleverly used in the surprising explanation to one of the crimes committed here. Once again, disguises play an important role -- also in the sensational (and quite amusing) escape of one of Gold Mask's henchmen.
       It's in this episode that Akechi Kogorō finally appears on the scene, almost a quarter of the way through the novel, and from then on it becomes a more personal contest, with Gold Mask warning Akechi off -- "Acquiesce or die", he writes in a note to the detective -- but Akechi of course continuing to investigate and getting closer and closer to Gold Mask and his secrets.
       Back in Tokyo, Akechi is approached by the illustrious Ōtori family, where daughter Fujiko has gone wayward -- shockingly, falling for and becoming involved with Gold Mask. Theirs is:

A curious bond between a beautiful girl carefully raised in a good family and a mysterious demon-like burglar. A terrible golden love.
       Even when the family locks Fujiko up she and her lover find a way to be reunited (sleeping draughts and disguises, yet again, playing a role). Akechi's efforts to save her are complicated by the fact that she doesn't want to be saved.
       Gold Mask is basically an art thief, stealing Japanese treasures; his last big coup is: "A national treasure among national treasures, one so famous that even a primary school student would know it". It is what he has his eye on -- aside from Fujiko -- that also helps lead Akechi to figure out who they are actually dealing with: it's late into the novel that the name is revealed, but the Edogawa's villain is none other than another famous mystery writer's creation, Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin:
     Oh, what a shocking revelation ! No one could fail to know the name of Arsène Lupin, France's gentleman burglar, the chivalrous thief of the age. Akechi claimed that the king of robbers had appeared in Tokyo, Japan. Had he taken leave of his senses ? Was he having a waking dream. It was simply too much to believe.
       It's a neat idea, and the most interesting aspect of the novel -- specifically in how Edogawa (re)presents the figure. The background is there -- Akechi references several of his exploits as Leblanc chronicled them, and another figure from the Leblanc novels also arrives on the scene -- but Edogawa also highlights the less appealing side of the figure, Akechi seen realizing, in one confrontation:
     So even you have the prejudice of the white race. To tell the truth, I hadn't thought of you as an ordinary criminal. In Japan, too, there have been chivalrous thieves since ancient times. But today, this very moment, I retract it. All that remains is my scorn for a contemptible robber.
       In Leblanc's books, Lupin is a sympathetic anti/hero, but Edogawa refuses to fully buy into or reproduce that image: his Lupin remains a dashing and clever figure -- and Edogawa acknowledges even the seductive-romantic appeal of the figure, in having Fujiko fall for him -- but ultimately he remains reprehensible. It's a fascinating moment in Japanese literature, since of course Edogawa is also separating himself from the European literary (mystery) tradition that he has also, in many ways, embraced: the French-mystery hero, Lupin, might have a place in the Japanese world, but he is not only an outsider, but objectionable, specifically also because of his racism. In a sense, Gold Mask pits familiar (also in Japan) European detective fiction against the relative new Japanese efforts, Edogawa wanting to show he can play at this game too -- but, in essentially rejecting Lupin, he also suggesting a new, independent course -- yes, relying on many of the same tricks and approaches, but nevertheless not merely pale imitation set in a different locale. Specifically, too, Edogawa treats locale and people not merely as exotic -- as they largely would have been in a European author's version of the same story -- while the 'other' here long hides behind a disguise (a mask that may be gold, but nevertheless serves primarily to hide and obscure what turns out to be an ugly truth).
       Interesting, too, in this regard is the resolution of the story, and specifically Akechi's priorities in it. Fujiko is very much a secondary figure, but ultimately she is the focus of Akechi's efforts: saving her, more than saving the art (even though they are national treasures) is at the fore, in being the final challenge. This human element is, presumably, more fundamental and moving than mere art -- the recovery of which is practically incidental --, though interestingly Fujiko isn't given much say in the matter.
       There are too many disguises in Gold Mask, and too many near-unbelievable-but-then-of-course-too-easy escapes (though many are quite clever, and if Edogawa had put a little more love into writing these, describing them in preparation and practice in more detail, they might have been much more palatable or even enjoyable). Many scenes are simply too compressed, Edogawa opting for the quick and simple -- down to Akechi and Lupin facing off, pistols in hand (and then not ...). And Edogawa even resorts to the occasional drumming of suspense in the most feeble way, wondering aloud: "Would there ever be another incident so dramatic ?" and the like.
       So all in all Gold Mask is a bit too simple and unpolished of a mix of a mystery-novel, as far as the mystery goes -- though there's enough here to at least hold interest, and there are some inspired ideas (including a(n admittedly very unlikely) masked ball) and twists. It is, however, a fascinating literary-historical work, Edogawa engaging in a particularly interesting way with Western influence in Japan, both in broadly cultural terms as well as simply regarding the genre of detective fiction, making a particularly strong statement about Western racism -- all in nice twist on cultural appropriation.
       (The title, by the way, was inspired by Marcel Schwob's The King in the Golden Mask, about which Edogawa writes in a commentary to the Esperanto translation of this novel: "I have a boundless love for that wonderful fantasy novel" (which was recently published in English by Wakefield Press).)

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 December 2019

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Gold Mask: Reviews: Other books by Edogawa Rampo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Edogawa Rampo (江戸川 乱歩; actually Hirai Tarō (平井 太郎)) lived 1894 to 1965.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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