Translated by Yumiko Yamazaki
Review by Terence Jagger
This Japanese detective thriller is set in the 1940s and so is relatively ‘modern’, but only in that calendar sense: in style and mood, it is golden age with a dash of gothic. The work of Yokomizo has until relatively recently been unknown in the west. This, and The Honjin Murders (previously reviewed for Shiny by Harriet here), have been produced by Pushkin Press. This kind of exploration is greatly to be welcomed, and there is little doubt that the literature of Japan – and of other countries too – have much to offer, which we in the UK often miss out on due to the relatively small amount of translated literature available.
But do not expect Agatha Christie with kimonos, this is a distinctively Japanese take on the British classic murder mystery – even if Yokomizo is clearly extremely knowledgeable about the genre – indeed, in The Honjin Murders, a knowledge of British crime writing is actually a significant part of the plot.
We are first introduced to Sahei Inugami, the founder of his family’s fortunes; he has risen from abject poverty to great wealth, and now he is dying (quite naturally, to dampen one obvious speculation). He sounds an unpleasant, unloving man, who had a close relationship when young with the priest Daini and his wife Haruyo – who adopted him – but thereafter seems not to have formed close attachments or stable bonds. He has never married, but leaves three children by three different women, and a number of grandsons – and there are other more obscure, maybe even less reputable, connections. All are waiting to hear the contents of the dying man’s will. And it is horrible, first badly delayed, then deliberately planned to set the various dependants against each other in the most vicious fashion. All the action is set in and around Inugami’s lakeside home in the small town of Nasu.
Inevitably, mistrust, already latent, develops fast and turns to deception and violence. Into this comes the unimpressive figure of Kosuke Kindaichi. He is
… a private investigator. He has what can be described as an inscrutable air, seeming, as he does, to float above worldly cares and desires. Physically, he is a stammering, inconsequential fellow with nothing to recommend him, but his remarkable faculty for reasoning and deduction has been attested … When he is excited, his stuttering is aggravated, and he tends to scratch his tousle-haired head with frightful vigour. It is not a very pleasant habit.
The case takes a long time to develop – not in terms of the book, but months pass before the first murder – which is not recognised as such immediately – and then events continue to be drawn out. Kindaichi sits around in his hotel for weeks, quite different from the relentless energy of Western police based mysteries, or the lightning analysis over a few days at most of the amateur detectives we are used to. There is plenty of melodrama, and the prose is very dramatic on occasion; there is a badly injured grandson, returned from the war – but is he an imposter? There is the beautiful and mysterious Tamayo and her faithful guardian, Monkey. There is violence both successful and unsuccessful, and there are red herrings across the trail. There is a family myth of three heirlooms – the ax, the zither and the chrysanthemum – which seem to provide a template for the troubling events that follow the reading of the will. And the Japanese words for these – yoki, koto, and kiku – form, taken together, the phrase “we hear good tidings”; is this an irrelevant conceit, or a key to the mystery?
And the melodrama, intense as it is, is sometimes forcibly slowed down by Yokomizo, while Kindaichi thinks or talks. And the Japanese traditional culture, already under intense stress from modernisation and the loss of the war, both permeates and mediates the action. You could never, for a single paragraph, forget that you are in Japan, from the tatami mats and kimonos to the styles of thought and the constraints on action, often violently set aside. The action is frankly bizarre, and the outcome forced, but this is still an intriguing book. The plot drives on, making no pretence at realism, and the reader is certainly engaged – and one character at least demands our sympathy.
In the end, a kind of rough justice is served, the perpetrator of the murders is discovered and just deserts meted out. For me, it felt a bit like watching a silent movie, where action is both over-emphasised in order to impress the viewer/reader, and is done with great broad brushes so the horror never threatens to truly disturb you. I am a passionate Japanophile, and I loved seeing this aspect of Japan – which is no stranger to the troubling, the peculiar and the depraved – but it is not in the slightest the Japan of western imagining. But it is very enjoyable, and I suspect you will want to read more of Kindaichi’s adventures (though at the moment you’ll have a job, as only two have been translated!).
Seishi Yokomizo, The Inugami Curse translated by Yumiko Tamazaki, (Pushkin Press, 2020). 978-1782275022, 320pp., paperback original.
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