H is for HAMAO! (as part of the a-to-z book challenge).
This was such a fun read! Despite the noir-ish subject matter, it brightened my day with the author’s ability to throw a few twists in his two novellas.
The Devil’s Disciple is comprised of two novellas: The Devil’s Disciple and Did He Kill Them?
I’ll review each of them separately, but before I do, I think a little background history of Shiro Hamao is necessary. He was a Japanese lawyer-turned-detective novelist who wrote in 1930s, around about the time when “whydunnits” were popular. Japanese authors were influenced by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. In six years, Hamao wrote 17 novellas and 3 novels, and was working on his fourth one before he died at the relatively premature age of 40. Because he was a scion of a prominent Japanese legal family and an aristocrat to boot, he had experience with the ins and out of the Japan’s Legal system. Therefore, his works are often seen to be critiques on the fallibility of law in the course of pursuing justice or truth. He was also a supporter of homosexual rights – not because he strived for a better future, more out of a remembrance for pre-modern Japan’s acceptance of gay relationships. His works often focus on themes of aestheticised decadence and sexual and moral perversity.
Now I’ll comment about Hamao’s two novellas in turn.
The Devil’s Disciple
This little gem is about a man who write a series of letters to his old school-friend and lover, a prosecutor. The man is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, murdering his young lover by allegedly giving her an overdose of sleep medication. He wants to get out jail, but at the same time he’s blaming the prosecutor for making him into a monster and corrupting his mind when they were school friends. There are gay overtones here. Although his resents his friend for abandoning him in favour of another good-looking boy when he was in university, the narrator is very much taken with his lover and sets out to murder his pregnant, uneducated wife, who he regards as a major obstacle to his happiness. However, his wife is not as stupid as he makes out in his letters when, in a particularly comedic moment involving karma, she reveals this in the form of telling him about her research into his sleep medication, the reader ends up rooting for her. The narrator is a thoroughly unpleasant fellow and, in my opinion, he deserves all the misery and misfortune heaped on him. This novella is very similar to Poe’s short story The Black Cat, but with the added satisfaction of the innocent character surviving.
Hamao succeeds in capturing the narrator’s paranoia, but I felt it ended too abruptly and needed more meat to flesh out the structure of the story.
Did He Kill Them?
In comparison, this is a slower-paced story, but it had a satisfying ending. A nameless barrister is addressing a group of detective writers about a strange case he was given. He represented a beautiful young man called Otera Ichiru who’s charged with the brutal murders of a wealthy married couple. Otera confesses to the murders who is responsible? The barrister reveals Otera was in love with the wife and that she was having marital troubles due to her ill husband’s cold behaviour. However, there isn’t much closure in the end of the story, but this adds to the mystery and unease. Sometimes open-endings are like real life, in that situations never get resolved neatly. With its themes of sexual deviancy, masochism, manipulation and doomed young love, this novella makes for a fun read.
My Verdict: Overall, two solid novellas, which are perfect fodder for a rainy day.