Excerpt

"The Spider"

Koga Saburo, trans. by Ho-Ling Wong and John Pugmire

The following short story is an exclusive excerpt from the British Library collection Foreign Bodies, edited by Martin Edwards, a new anthology of early crime writing from around the world. In the following story, a scientist with a penchant for spiders pursues a twisted revenge.

Haruta Yoshitame (1893–1945), who wrote as Koga Saburo, was a contemporary of the legendary Japanese crime writer Taro Hirai (1894–1965), who adopted the pen-name Edogawa Rampo, a loose transliteration of Edgar Allan Poe, in tribute to the father of the detective story, and founded the Mystery Writers of Japan in 1947. Edogawa is credited as the author of the first detective story in Japanese, publishing “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” in 1923. Shortly afterwards, Koga Saburo followed his lead, and Japanese detective fiction began to flourish. Koga is credited with coining the term honkaku, meaning “orthodox,” to describe Japanese Golden Age stories in 1930, the year in which the Detection Club was founded by Anthony Berkeley in London. Rather fittingly, the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan is to this day a thriving body, established in 1970, and modelled on the Detection Club.

Although unknown to British and American readers during the Golden Age, Koga’s work was very popular in Japan. Traditionalist in his outlook, he contributed an essay about Conan Doyle to a book published in Japan in 1934, and favored focusing on the puzzle element of a mystery, rather than on its literary aspects. “The Spider” dates from 1930, and is not a conventional whodunit, but rather a pleasing fusion of elements from macabre fiction and the classic detective puzzle. The translation presented here was undertaken by Ho-Ling Wong and edited by John Pugmire.

***

The bizarre laboratory of Professor Tsujikawa stood on top of a pillar towering at least nine metres high, as if competing with the surrounding keyaki trees which had lost their leaves. The laboratory was shaped like a cylinder about 4.5 metres wide and 2.7 metres high. It had a round ceiling and the windows, all of the same size, were spaced at regular intervals. The building had been unprotected from the forces of wind and rain for a whole year and the chalk-white walls had faded to a grey colour in several places; at first sight, the laboratory resembled a misshapen lighthouse or a time-worn fire watchtower. I gazed up at the building in awe.

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The world was shocked when Professor Tsujikawa, a leading authority on physical chemistry, gave up his seat as a university professor and started research on a completely different topic: spiders. People thought the man had become mad when they heard the professor had built a laboratory shaped like a tube, nine metres above ground somewhere in the outskirts of Tokyo. I, too, was one of those surprised people who did not comprehend the professor’s intentions.

“There is almost nobody left who remembers the death of the professor, his bizarre laboratory, and the hundreds of spiders which crawled around in there.”

But the professor was completely indifferent to the voices of critique and ridicule and devoted himself diligently to his research. He had over a hundred jars in his laboratory, in which he kept countless species of spider. He studiously examined the adaptability of spiders, among other topics. Within months of the professor starting his research, one could find the strangest spiders from all over the world inside his bizarre laboratory.

Half a year passed, and the world had forgotten about the professor cooped up in his strange laboratory, but then one night Professor Shiomi, a friend from the university who had come to visit, fell to his death from the laboratory and it became news again. There were even curiosity-seekers who came out of their way just to take a look at the laboratory. Professor Tsujikawa naturally didn’t let just anyone in, so the gawkers had to be content with staring up at the circular tower ten metres above them from ground level.

But the world soon forgot about this incident, too, and Professor Tsujikawa was able to resume his spider research undisturbed. But that didn’t last long either. Because, a month later, the professor was bitten by a poisonous tropical spider. He was brought to the hospital in critical situation, muttering incoherently, and lay in a coma for a week before finally falling prey to the poison. People started to talk about the professor again, of course, but this, too, didn’t last long. Now there is almost nobody left who remembers the death of the professor, his bizarre laboratory, and the hundreds of spiders which crawled around in there.

I am an assistant at the university’s zoology lab and have some knowledge on arthropods, so the professor occasionally asked for my help with his research. As I mentioned, Professor Tsujikawa was a world-class researcher in physical chemistry, but he was a relative amateur in zoology, so even someone like myself could contribute a little something to his research. Though I have to admit that was only true at the start; it was hardly surprising that someone with the professor’s intellect was able to master the topic better than I in very little time. I asked the professor once or twice why he had abandoned his special field of physical chemistry for spider research, but he just smiled and gave no answer.

The professor’s family had trouble deciding just how to dispose of the laboratory. The building itself was troublesome enough, but the real problem was the hundreds of spiders inside, among which were several species deadly enough to take a man’s life. The family didn’t dare come near the building, so they let me take care of it, as I have some specialist knowledge on how to deal with the creatures. And so it was that I found myself alone there on the appointed day.

Stepping on the fallen leaves, I walked towards the bizarre building. After staring in awe at its cylindrical tower for a while, I climbed the steep staircase of reinforced concrete. At the top was a small landing, slightly wider than one tatami mat and, leading from it, the only door to the laboratory. Although the staircase and landing followed the contour of the cylindrical tower, there was a very slight gap between, because they had been constructed separately from the tower itself. (This may appear to be a minor detail but it will prove to be important later on, so I mention it here.)

I entered the laboratory.

 “Inside hundreds of bottles lining the walls, eight-legged monsters were running around and spinning their webs.”

I had visited the place several times when the professor was alive, and I was also a student of zoology, especially arthropods, so I should have been quite used to the sight; nevertheless it still gave me the shivers and I was rooted for a moment to the spot. Inside hundreds of bottles lining the walls, eight-legged monsters were running around and spinning their webs. Big Oni-gumo and Jorō spiders, yellow with blue stripes; Harvestmen with legs ten times longer than their bodies; Cellar spiders with yellow spots on their backs. The grotesque Kimura spider and trapdoor spiders, Ji-gumo, Ha-gumo, Hirata-gumo, Kogane-gumo: all these different kinds of spider had not been fed for about a month and, having lost most of their flesh, were looking around with shiny, hungry eyes for food. Some jars had not been properly sealed, and the escaped spiders had spun their webs on the ceiling and in the corners of the room. Countless numbers of the ghastly creatures were crawling around on the walls and ceiling.

I plucked up courage and took a careful look at the jars. Fortunately, the fearsome tropical poisonous spiders were still sealed up safely in their jars. Professor Tsujikawa had been discovered in a critical state and had done little more than cry out incomprehensible curses, so I don’t know how he was bitten, but I was pleased to note that the spider responsible for his death could not have escaped. I proceeded to check every corner of the room, the back of the bookcase, the desk, and even the cracks in the floor, in fear that some other venomous creature might be lurking there.

I didn’t find any poisonous spiders, but when I examined the back of the professor’s work desk, I did discover an electric switch on one of the desk’s legs. It seemed to be a strange place for a switch for the lights or the heater, so I pushed it two or three times tentatively. As I had almost expected, the lights did not go on, and neither, apparently, did anything else, so I had no idea what the switch was for.

By then I was getting tired and decided to take a rest. I brushed the dust off the professor’s armchair standing in the middle of the room, sat down and lit a cigarette. Through the broom-like branches of the keyaki trees outside the windows, I could see the clear blue sky. The sunlight of the winter day’s afternoon poured into the room.

I looked at the cloud that rose from my cigarette as I thought about the professor when he was alive. I have to say that he was quite difficult in his dealings with other people. Although he enjoyed considerable fame in the academic world, he was disliked by his fellow researchers. By contrast, his colleague Professor Shiomi was a lively and amusing man. The glowering Professor Tsujikawa always seemed to be the butt of Professor Shiomi’s jokes. Even though his colleague’s comments didn’t appear to be malicious, Professor Tsujikawa seemed to harbour resentful feelings towards him—although he never expressed his feelings openly.

“Then my mind drifted back to the day that Professor Shiomi fell to his untimely death from the laboratory’s staircase.”Then my mind drifted back to the day that Professor Shiomi fell to his untimely death from the laboratory’s staircase. It had happened six months ago, at the end of summer. Professor Tsujikawa had invited me over, and when I entered the room, the professor was sitting in the very armchair I was sitting in, talking with Professor Shiomi who was sitting opposite him. In contrast to his usual manner, Professor Tsujikawa was very talkative, and his loud laughter sounded like that of a different man. When the professor noticed me he offered me a seat and introduced me to Professor Shiomi (who was sitting with his back to the door, which meant that Professor Tsujikawa was facing the door, which is why he saw me entering the laboratory. The position of Professor Shiomi’s seat will become important later on, so I mention it here.)

I joined in the pleasant conversation. Professor Tsujikawa was unlike the man I initially described. Usually, when I was alone with him, I’d often have trouble coming up with topics to discuss, but here he was engaging in lively discussion with the always talkative Professor Shiomi, and even I got caught up in the cheery chat. I was very impressed by Professor Shiomi’s characteristically humorous banter and very surprised to see Professor Tsujikawa giving as good as he got. It appeared then that the rumours of bad blood between them were ill-founded (but this na.ve conclusion turned out to be entirely wrong.)

The conversation went on and on. I think we talked for about two hours. It was then that Professor Shiomi suddenly jumped up from his seat. Surprised, I looked at the professor, who looked as pale as a ghost. Screaming, he flew to the door behind him and rushed outside. I had no idea what these sudden events meant, until I caught a glimpse of a rare spider crawling across the floor. The creature had probably gone close to Professor Shiomi’s feet.

‘That’s a kind of trapdoor spider. Shiomi probably thought it was poisonous,’ I seem to recall Professor Tsujikawa say, as he pointed to the creature on the floor (I also recall repeating the same observation to the policemen who came later to examine the body.)

But I had not really paid attention to the professor’s words at the time, because as soon as Professor Shiomi had gone through the door we heard a cry and the sound of something falling. Startled, I ran towards the door, but Professor Tsujikawa stopped me. ‘Look out! There’s a steep staircase!’ he said as he pulled me back. Then he himself went out.

What happened next was also reported in detail in the newspapers. Having rushed outside, Professor Shiomi had slipped and hit his head two or three times on the concrete staircase as he made a fall which turned out to be fatal. Because rumour had it that he and Professor Shiomi couldn’t get along, the policemen in charge questioned Professor Tsujikawa quite aggressively. But I testified that the two had had an extremely peaceful and relaxed conversation, and Professor Shiomi had only rushed outside because he had seen a spider crawling on the floor, which he had taken to be venomous. But it was not venomous at all: it was Professor Shiomi’s own mistake, as was his fall down the staircase, so no blame was attached to Professor Tsujikawa. Nevertheless, the newspapers had a field day with the story and once again reported on how Professor Tsujikawa had quit his university post to focus on his new field of spider research, and how he spent his days inside a laboratory on top of a nine metre high circular pillar. The news attracted quite a number of people and, for a while, onlookers would assemble beneath the laboratory—which annoyed Professor Tsujikawa immensely, as I stated before. The professor didn’t cease his spider research but sealed himself inside his laboratory; I had heard lately that he seemed to be acting rather strangely, so the whole ordeal might well have affected him.

Anyway, sitting inside this bizarre circular laboratory, surrounded by monstrous spiders, I reminisced on the late Professor Tsujikawa; before I knew it, a small forest of cigarette stubs had grown in the ashtray on the table. Surprised at how much time had passed, I took one last look at the spiders inside the jars, just to be sure, and made a plan in my head to dispose of them. With the object of my visit to the room fulfilled, I reached for the door (as I mentioned before, there was only one door,) opened it inwards and was about to step out, when I cried out and gripped the frame. I had nearly dropped nine metres down to the ground. It was impossible: there was no trace of the staircase and landing which should have been outside the door! Far beneath my feet, I could see the disk-shaped concrete foundation that formed the base of the nine-metre high pillar, which seemed to beckon to me.

I rubbed my eyes and took another look. But it was not an optical illusion. I looked over my shoulder at the room but, needless to say, there was no other opening. I closed the door, staggered back inside and looked through each of the windows. And, lo and behold, I found the landing and the attached staircase beneath the third window.

I was bewildered. If I climbed out of the window to the landing, I could make my way down to the ground. Even though I was relieved that there was a way down from this strange tower anymore, I was mystified as to how a staircase of reinforced concrete could have shifted position like that.

After standing there pondering for a while, the answer slowly dawned on me. I looked carefully at the sunlight streaming through the window, and at the big trees outside the window.

I had it! This circular laboratory was rotating silently, with the pillar as its axis! Then I remembered. I had found a curious switch at the back of the desk when I had arrived, and had pushed it a couple of times. I thought I was switching it off, but I had unwittingly turned the contraption on and the concrete tower 4.5 metres wide had started to rotate. Imade an estimate of the rotation speed: the staircase had moved about 4.5 metres, which would be approximately 20 degrees. That had taken about one hour, so it would make a full 360 degree rotation in three hours.

I thought about switching the contraption off immediately, but it seemed better to let it complete a full rotation, so I let it run until it returned to its original position. Once again, I sat down in the armchair in the middle of the room, and silently pondered on why this room had been designed to rotate.

It suddenly came to me. The hideous idea made me shudder. I stood up in shock and walked around the room, feeling as if I were going insane. I started to pull everything in the room apart and search feverishly. I needed to know Professor Tsujikawa’s secret, and I was convinced it was hidden here somewhere.

After going through the room in a frenzy, I finally discovered the professor’s diary hidden away in a secret compartment behind a bookcase. With trembling hands, I turned the pages. Inside, I found the professor’s secret.

***

19XX, XX, XX

It’s been three months since I decided to kill S. I finally thought of a plan. My reasons for killing S. are strictly personal and there is no need for me to try to justify it for my own conscience. I only need to fool everyone else. I don’t need to fool my own conscience.

“I only need to fool everyone else. I don’t need to fool my own conscience.”

Whenever my intention to kill S. wavers, I only need to think of the countless times I have been insulted by him. On both private and public occasions, S. has kept mocking me, ridiculing me, oppressing me, abusing me, all under the guise of ‘a joke.’ Whether he himself is aware of it or not, to me this is an unforgivable affront. But, as I have a timid nature and am a poor speaker, I can never put up a fight against his sparkling eloquence and I am reduced to being just a mere clown. Captivated by his repartee and wit, everybody laughs along, but nobody notices me, the victim, grinding his teeth. No, there is no need for me to write about these events any more now. The conclusion is simple. I hate S. I hate him enough to want to kill him. That is an undeniable fact. The only problem is the method of murder.

I have looked at various methods over the last three months. None of them was both certain and undetectable. But I did find one interesting method in a mystery short story written by a foreigner.

In it, person A wanted to kill person B. He rented a room on each of the ground and top floors of a large building and had the interiors made completely identical, so if someone blindfolded were brought into either room, he would not know which floor he was on when the blindfold was removed. And so, one night, A brought B to the room on the ground floor, overpowered him and tied him up. Then he lied to B, saying a time bomb had been placed in the room and was set to go off at nine o’clock, in thirty minutes, which would blow B to smithereens. A then knocked B out with sleeping gas and carried him to the top floor room where he stopped the clock at five minutes to nine and left B in the room. The clock had to be stopped in advance at the right time, because he could not know when B would wake up.

After a while, B woke up. He found his arms and legs were tied but, as the knots were loose, he managed to free himself. Then he remembered what A had said (naturally, he thought he was still on the ground floor.) Shocked, he looked at the clock. Five minutes to nine! Only five minutes until the explosion. B jumped to the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Panicked, he tried the window. Luckily (he thought,) it was open. Thinking he was on the ground floor, he jumped out. And, as you can imagine, the next moment he was lying in a pool of his own blood on the ground.

This is an ingenious trick. But if you think about it, to rent two rooms in a building and have the interiors be identical without drawing attention to yourself is not so easy, and carrying an unconscious person from the ground floor to the top floor without anyone noticing is also quite difficult. But the method’s fatal weakness is that it depends on chance and therefore lacks certainty. If B wakes up and does indeed panic according to plan—like placing your order with the waiter—then all is fine. But if he stops and thinks calmly, he may first notice that the clock is standing still. Secondly, he might realize he is not on the ground floor anymore when he opens the window. And, most dangerous of all, should B see through the plot, his testimony would leave A no room to escape a charge of attempted murder. That is why I thought of an improvement: B should not be forced into doing anything. If B isn’t forced to do anything, then even if the plan goes awry, nobody will be able to blame A.

19XX, XX, XX

I quit the university as planned. The construction of my laboratory in the suburbs is also proceeding on schedule. I had thought about building the laboratory inside my own house, because it would be easier to invite S. there. But no matter how brilliant this plan is, I fear that if I attempt it in a populated area, someone will notice, so I decided to build my laboratory in the inconvenient suburbs.

19XX, XX, XX

The laboratory is finally complete. I knew just the man for the laboratory’s secret and I have no fear of anyone finding out. The construction workers all think it’s necessary for my research. Who would even suspect I need the device to kill someone?

19XX, XX, XX

I have decided my research will be on spiders. I had considered snakes, but very poisonous spiders also exist out there, so I will use spiders.

19XX, XX, XX

I did a test run in the middle of the night. The results were excellent. I was worried about the rotation speed. We humans don’t notice uniform motion if there is no object of comparison. Among the lower animals, there are those who don’t mind even if they have an object of comparison. Flies, for example can stay motionless even on the back of a running horse. Flypaper makes use of this behaviour. If you smear some substance flies like on a chip of wood, then they will land on it. But these same flies will not notice if the piece of wood starts spinning and finally falls into an inescapable pit, until it is too late.

But I was not sure if humans could notice uniform notion without perceiving the world around them—not true uniform motion, but artificial uniform motion.Because of that, I slowed the rotation speed down considerably. People can see the movement of a seconds hand on a watch. But if you glance at the seconds hand for just an instant, you don’t see the movement. That is why when people want to know whether a pocket watch is still working, they listen to it instead of looking at it.

But it is almost impossible to see the movement of the minute hand. The face of a watch is divided in sections and if you stare at it for two or three minutes, you might notice that the hand is slowly nearing the next section, but if these divisions weren’t there, you probably wouldn’t perceive the movement. And the movement of the hour hand is practically undetectable. That is why I did a test run with a revolution speed of one complete rotation every three hours. The results were very promising.

19XX, XX, XX

I have made another improvement to my plan. At first I had planned to be alone with S. in the laboratory, but I feared I would be suspected of having pushed S. myself. I need a witness, but if I arrange for one to beoutside, he might realize the laboratory was rotating. Furthermore, because I need to execute the plan at night-time, when there is nobody around and nothing can be seen through the window, my witness cannot be someone outside. That’s why I have decided to have a witness inside the room. I will need to make sure this witness doesn’t notice the laboratory’s movement if S. really falls to his death as planned. People usually go into a state of shock when something violent and out of the ordinary occurs, so even if I move the laboratory quickly back to its original state, this witness will probably not notice it.

19XX, XX, XX

I finally succeeded. I invited S. over and entertained him. Not knowing he was about to die, poor S. chatted on just as he always did, making fun of me. I hid my intentions and told him gruesome stories of poisonous spiders and mentioned that I had unfortunately lost one of them recently. S. naturally looked horrified. After a while, K., an assistant at the university zoology laboratory, arrived as per my invitation. I switched the secret button on and let the laboratory slowly rotate. No one noticed. To make sure no one would detect the movement, I kept on chatting. S. and K. probably noticed I wasn’t my usual, silent self.

“My spiders, they glare strangely at me with eyes like a detective.”

When the appropriate time arrived, I released the trapdoor spider I had hidden beneath my foot. It made its way sluggishly to S.’s feet. Having heard my terrible tales of poisonous spiders, S. turned pale, jumped up and ran towards the door (perhaps S. thought I had set the poisonous spider on him to kill him: he probably knew I hated him and his flight seemed to be genuinely fearful.) At that particular time, the door was a short distance from the staircase landing. But even a little is fatal. He missed his step, hit the staircase halfway down, bounced off a second time and finally hit the ground. He died instantly. My plan had succeeded perfectly, but even if he had not died instantly, nobody would have suspected me of murder. My witness K., of course, had no idea of the malice within me. Crying out in fear of the spider, fleeing to the door and missing the staircase: all were S.’s own actions. I returned the laboratory to its original state while K. was still in shock. The rotation sped up, but K. didn’t notice it at all.

19XX, XX, XX

Some idiots are making a ruckus beneath the laboratory.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone eventually sees

through my plan, but there is nobody like that here now.

19XX, XX, XX

S. died. That is a clear fact. But his death does not offer me as much comfort as I had expected and I even feel something is lacking. I had planned to stop my research on spiders after I killed him. I thought that with his death, the university would offer me a lecturer’s seat, but there has been no such news. I am disappointed, but somehow I feel I can’t stop my research on spiders.

19XX, XX, XX

Still no news from the university. I have started again with my research on spiders.

19XX, XX, XX

I have succeeded in obtaining a male and female pair of a tropical poisonous spider species.

19XX, XX, XX

I feel I might be cursed by these spiders. My spiders, they glare strangely at me with eyes like a detective.

19XX, XX, XX

I am cursed! I had not noticed that S.’s ghost was inside this tropical spider! Look at those eyes! Those are the eyes of S. as he lay at the foot of the tower covered in blood! He has become a poisonous spider!

19XX, XX, XX

I am not going to lose. Not to a mere poisonous spider. S. is a fool too. As befitting of someone who got himself killed, he returned to this world as a spider. Come and try. I will crush you. I will pick you apart. But that look…ah, lately, I have become afraid of spiders. Those eyes, those eyes…The horrible eyes of that spider…

19XX, XX, XX

I am afraid of the eyes of the spider. I can’t sleep anymore in this room. Tomorrow, I will finish this. Wait for it, spider S., I will crush you with my bare hands.

***

The terrifying spider diary ended there. I shuddered as I finished reading. Suddenly I was aware that within all the jars around me, hundreds, thousands of spiders, right of me, left of me, in front of me, in the back of me, were all crawling slowly towards me. In a frenzy I ran for the door. By a great stroke of luck the landing was right there. I flew down the stairs without looking back.

I caught a fever and stayed in bed for several days. During that time, a fire broke out in the bizarre laboratory, everything inside burned down and the hundreds of spiders all burnt to death. The police believe a beggar or tramp sneaked inside and started the fire. Without the fire, that peculiar tower would have continued rotating in silence, but probably nobody would have noticed, I think, even now.

__________________________________

“The Spider” translation © 2015 by John Pugmire and Ho-Ling Wong. Reproduced courtesy of Locked Room International, first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. From Foreign Bodies, edited by Martin Edwards. Used with the permission of the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press and The British Library. Copyright © 2018 by The British Library.




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