Even if you bind my burning hart with chains, it's no use
I knock down everyone who stands in my one with just one finger
"Take back my love!" (Crystal King)
I have a whole bunch of unread Edogawa Rampo volumes lying around here. It's basically my emergency kit: whenever I have nothing else to read, or I want to read something I know I can get through quickly and still have some fun with, I pick up one of these volumes. And so today, another of Rampo's novels.
In Edogawa Rampo's Akuma no Monshou ("The Crest of the Devil", 1937~38), an unknown enemy has threatened to wipe off CEO Kawate Shoutarou and his family of the face of this world. Because the famous detective Akechi Kogorou has left the country for other business, Kawate decides to hire Professor Munakatari, another private detective who has been making a name for himself as being at least the equal of the great Akechi Kogorou. But even Professor Munakatari has to admit that this case is a lot more complex, and the secret adversary much more dangerous than he had assumed. Without breaking even a sweat, the avenger manages to kill one of Munakatari's assistants, do the same with Kawate's youngest daughter and stage a disappearing act with the elder sister from a guarded room inside a well-secured house. The only clue Munakatari has is the murderer's fingerpint: this mark of the devil with three distinctive swirls appears on every crime scene, like a face laughing at Kawate and Munakatari.
Akuma no Monshou was originally serialized in the magazine Hi no De from September 1937 until October of the following year, with Yokomizo Seishi as its editor. Rampo was also busy with the serialization of Shounen Tantei Dan in the same period by the way, so it was a productive time for him. Wthin the oeuvre of Rampo, Akuma no Monshou holds a B-rank in terms of name I think: it's not as known as other works by Rampo, but it is certainly not an obscure title (I even have a comic version of it by The Accidents' Yamada Takatoshi).
But this is definitely not Edogawa Rampo at his best. A lot of the plot consists of reusing elements of other, and usually better stories he had written in the past and considering Rampo's strange fascination for mirrors, Akuma no Monshou ironically feels like a laughing mirror version of these stories. Mirrors appear in the form of a mirror house in this novel by the way, and you'll see a lot of other familar Rampo tropes too, but their use never feels original. It's all an inferior version of what Rampo had already done a lot better in the past. People hiding in stuff? Done better in The Human Chair. Public display of dead bodies and themes of voyeurism? Done better in The Dwarf. Mirrors and lenses? The Hell of Mirrors. A long detective story? Kotou no Oni was much more entertaining and it doesn't even come close to the excellent novella Nanimono (translation here). Every element in Akuma no Monshou has been done before by Rampo himself and much better.
And while I have the feeling Rampo was aiming for a traditional mystery plot with Akuma no Monshou, it's so full of silly stuff it is hard to take the novel seriously. The plan of the avenger is unneccessary complex and time-consuming, half of the plot is held together through threads of coincidence and luck and even though I absolutely love Rampo's work in general, even the sillier ones, I have difficulty finding something that really sets this novel apart from other Rampo stories in a positive way. The only part remotely interesting is the way the three-swirl fingerprint keeps turning up everywhere as the symbol of the avenger, but even that isn't really as terrifying as it could have been.
In general, Rampo has problems with longer stories. His novels were usually serialized, and he often just winged the plot together as he went (Kohantei Jiken for example). Because of that, a lot of stories feel very episodic and never really well planned out. This doesn't mean all of Rampo's longer works are bad: sometimes the chaos works (it certainly worked out for something like Ougon Kamen for example) and as the Lupin novels also show, episodic events do add a sense of thrill and adventure to the overall story. But Akuma no Monshou is an example of how it sometimes kinda falls apart and you're left with something, while not absolutely unreadable, is still not close what it could have been.
Personally, I have to admit that this has been a good lesson because for some reason, I've liked practically all I've read of Rampo. Even though I know he wasn't always at his best when at the writing table: there are actually quite a lot of his stories that were received quite badly when they were published and Rampo himself is the first to admit that a lot of his work isn't as good as it should be, one can read in his memoirs. But for me, Akuma no Monshou was the first story I just didn't manage to really like. Ah well, at least now I am sure I am not just a blind Rampo fanboy.
Akuma no Monshou is a very mediocre work by Rampo. You can find practically all of it, in a better form, in Rampo's other works. You're better off reading those stories, and if you have already, then there's no need whatsoever to read Akuma no Monshou.
Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『悪魔の紋章』