The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Reviewed by Harriet

Seishi Yozomizo (1902-1991), whose works are hugely celebrated in Japan, has been described as ‘the Japanese Agatha Christie’, or alternatively ‘the Japanese John Dickson Carr’. It’s certainly true that he admired British Golden Age crime fiction and borrowed some of its tropes for his own 77 detective novels, but these are fascinatingly interwoven with details that could only belong to his own country. Pushkin Vertigo, to whom we owe this and the two of his novels we’ve featured before on Shiny [here and here], describe The Village of Eight Graves as ‘cosy crime’, but there’s not much cosiness in the plot here. Published in 1951, it features the eccentric, scruffy, stuttering, brilliant private detective Kosuke Kindaichi, who plays a relatively minor role until he steps in at the end with a Poirot-esque reveal of the truth behind what has been an action-filled and frequently gothic tale with an extremely high body count.

The story is narrated by a young man named Tatsuya Terada. He’s been living a quiet, uneventful life, working in a factory in the city of Kobe, when he gets a message from a solicitor saying he is heir to a substantial fortune. He’s never even heard of the family it comes from, as he was brought up by a single mother who told him nothing about his background. She did, however, give him a mysterious map, saying ‘You must always keep it safe. Don’t ever lose it. One day it may make you a very lucky person’. This is going to prove to be more true than he could ever have imagined.

He now learns the upsetting news that his father was a mass murderer whose crimes are well-remembered in the village of Eight Graves, so named for the massacre many years before of a group of samurai who had taken refuge there. It is to this ominous and, as it turns out, very unwelcoming place that he must travel to discover more about his inheritance. The bearer of this news is his grandfather, who he meets for the first time at the solicitor’s office. But before he can ask any more questions, the old man drops dead, having evidently been poisoned. This will be the first of many deaths that dog his way as he tries to make sense of his new family knowledge and to discover the nature of the promised inheritance. Before he leaves for the village, though, he is encouraged to meet Miyako Mori, a beautiful and sophisticated woman originally from there who has been asked by his great aunts to fetch him back. He is relieved to have someone who will support him while he gets to know this relatives and his childhood home. 

The events that greet Tatsuya in the village are overwhelming and terrifying. A serial killer is evidently on the loose and a great many of his relatives and family connections will have died before the mystery is solved. He meets his half-sister Haruyo, a kind and loving woman; his identical twin great aunts, aged over eighty, and ‘so small they looked as though they could fit in the palm of my hand, like two little monkeys’; and the beautiful Norico, ‘so frail, like a flower that tries to blossom in the shade’. There are nuns – one good, one wicked. And there’s a network of mysterious tunnels that run from the family home and spread out in bewildering ways under the village and contain the terrifying shrine of a dead samurai. And of course there’s the treasure hunt. As for Kosuke Kindaichi, he appears in the village after he has heard of the events there from the police. As always happens, Tatsuya is not impressed with his appearance and manner, but, like Columbo, he conceals a brilliant mind under his unprepossessing exterior. He’s been described as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but he’s also very much a product of his home country and environment. He seems to have worked out quite early on who the perpetrator is, but takes time to gather the evidential proof. I was not exactly astonished to learn the identity of the murderer, but though I suspected it, Kosuke Kindaichi’s explanation of their motives was essential in making sense of what appeared to be a series of unrelated and senseless crimes. 

Tatsuya is an attractive protagonist, and it’s enjoyable to accompany him on his adventures, during the course of which he learns a lot, not just about his family but also about himself. Indeed, despite the shocks and suspense and gore (or probably because of them) this is an extremely entertaining read. I got the feeling that Yokomizo had fun writing it, and it must have given a great deal of pleasure to many people since its first appearance in 1971. Happily now English-speaking readers can share the enjoyment, thanks to Pushkin Vertigo and to Bryan Karetnyk, whose translation is impeccable. Long may they continue.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Village of Eight Graves, trans. Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Vertigo, 2021). 978-1782277453, 352pp., paperback original.

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