The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Yumiko Yamazaki

My choice for this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge (hosted by Dolce Bellezza) was easy as I only had one unread Japanese novel on my TBR. The Inugami Curse is one of a series of detective novels by Yokomizo that I’ve been enjoying over the last few years since discovering that they were being released in English translations by Pushkin Vertigo. This book was originally published in 1951 and features the private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. It’s the fourth in the series that I’ve read and one of my favourites – it’s certainly stronger than Death on Gokumon Island and The Village of Eight Graves and maybe even better than The Honjin Murders.

The Inugami Curse is set in the 1940s in post-war Japan. Kosuke Kindaichi, our unassuming, stuttering, head-scratching detective, has been summoned to the lakeside town of Nasu by the lawyer of a wealthy businessman who has recently died. The will is about to be read and the lawyer is afraid that it will cause trouble amongst the heirs. Already one of the young women who is set to benefit has been the target of several suspicious ‘accidents’ and things seem likely to get worse once the full conditions of the will become clear.

The dead man, Sahei, was the head of the Inugami family and as his children, grandchildren and other members of the household gather at the family home for the reading of the will, Kindaichi discovers that Mr Wakabayashi, the lawyer who had requested his presence, has been found dead after smoking a poisoned cigarette. This is only the first of several murders because, as Wakabayashi had predicted, Sahei’s fiendishly clever will sets the family members against each other. But which of them is prepared to kill to get what they think they deserve? There is one obvious suspect – Sahei’s eldest grandson, Kiyo, was repatriated from Burma just a few days earlier and has returned to the Inugami home with his face hidden by a mask, having been severely wounded in the war. Is it really Kiyo behind the mask? Kindaichi is sure that if he can establish the identity of the masked man, he will hold the key to the mystery.

This is a very enjoyable novel and unlike some of the other Japanese mysteries I’ve read, which are excessively puzzle-orientated, this one focuses as much on characters, motives and family secrets as it does on the methods behind the crimes. However, those methods are still very clever. Yokomizo is quite fair with the reader – the clues are there and it’s possible to work out parts of the solution – but I doubt anybody would be able to deduce exactly how each of the murders were committed. I was happy to wait for Kosuke Kindaichi to explain everything at the end! The murders themselves are bizarre and often gruesome – this book is definitely more graphic and more macabre than most British detective novels from that period – but also dramatic and filled with symbolism.

As well as the entertaining plot, the book touches on various aspects of Japanese culture and history, portraying a country in the aftermath of war, with many families like the Inugamis awaiting the repatriation of the Japanese soldiers. There are also descriptions of koto (zither) music and displays of chrysanthemum dolls. With each book in this series I feel I’m learning a little bit more about Japan. I can’t wait to read The Devil’s Flute Murders, another Kindaichi mystery being published in English later this year.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

Joseph O’Connor’s new novel My Father’s House, published in the UK today, is based on the true story of Hugh O’Flaherty, a Catholic priest who helped thousands of Jews and Allied prisoners of war to escape from Italy during World War II. This is the third book I’ve read by O’Connor (the others are Shadowplay, about the author Bram Stoker and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and Ghost Light, which explores the relationship between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood) and I think it’s the best of the three.

The main part of the novel is set in 1943. Born and raised in Ireland, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty is serving in Vatican City during the war – a neutral territory within Nazi-occupied Rome. As an official Vatican visitor to Italy’s prisoner of war camps, Hugh has been trying to improve conditions for the prisoners, but his actions mark him out as an Allied sympathiser and his superiors prevent him from carrying out any more visits in case he makes the Vatican a Nazi target. However, Hugh won’t be stopped that easily and soon he has set up an Escape Line, successfully smuggling Jews and escaped prisoners out of Rome right under the eyes of the Nazis.

The biggest escape mission yet – the ‘Rendimento’ – has been arranged for Christmas Eve, 1943. In the hope that the Gestapo will be less vigilant on this particular night, Hugh and his group of courageous volunteers have put elaborate plans in place to move a large number of people out of the city under the cover of darkness. As we count down the days and hours leading up to the mission, we also get to know each member of Hugh’s team and how they came to be involved in the Escape Line.

The group use the cover of meeting for ‘choir practice’ and this is where they discuss their plans and receive their instructions – carefully coded, of course, as the Nazis have eyes and ears everywhere. One Nazi in particular is getting too close for comfort; he is Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann, who already has his eye on Hugh due to the camp visits and is starting to close in on the Choir and the Rendimento. But although Hauptmann is our villain, O’Connor gives him a surprising amount of depth, describing his home life and his relationship with his wife and children. This reminder that Nazi officers were often also family men leading normal domestic lives just makes Hauptmann’s behaviour feel even more chilling and shocking.

As the clock ticks down on Christmas Eve, the suspense increases as we are kept wondering whether the mission will succeed. However, the chapters describing the build-up to the Rendimento are interspersed with other chapters in which each member of the Choir introduces themselves and their background and tells us how they met Hugh and joined his group. I wasn’t very keen on this structure as I felt that it broke the flow of the story and took away some of the tension, but it was still interesting to hear their different voices (some of which I found more convincingly written than others). They included Sir D’Arcy Osborne, the British envoy to the Holy See, and his butler John May, diplomat’s wife Delia Kiernan, and escaped soldier Sam Derry – all of whom were real people.

I had never read anything about Hugh O’Flaherty and his work until now, so I’m pleased to have had the chance to learn something new. I see he was the subject of a 1983 film, The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck, which I’ve never come across either. Although My Father’s House is a complete novel in itself, it’s apparently the first in an Escape Line trilogy – I’ll be looking out for the next one and will be interested to see if it’s going to focus on a different member of the group this time.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 3/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I discovered in 2022

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is “New-to-Me Authors I Discovered in 2022”. There were lots of authors I tried for the first time last year, but the ten I’m listing below are all authors I enjoyed and am hoping to read again.

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1. Catriona McPhersonIn Place of Fear, a mystery set in 1940s Edinburgh, was my first book by Scottish author McPherson. I think I might try one of her Dandy Gilver mysteries next.

2. Nevil Shute – I finally got round to reading Pied Piper last year and enjoyed it. A Town Like Alice is probably going to be the next book I read by Shute.

3. Frances Quinn – Frances Quinn’s That Bonesetter Woman was one of my books of the year in 2022, so I’m looking forward to reading her previous novel, The Smallest Man.

4. F. Tennyson Jesse – I had wanted to read A Pin to See the Peepshow, Jesse’s retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, for years and was finally able to with this new British Library edition. Her other books seem to be more difficult to find.

5. Tom Mead – I loved Death and the Conjuror, a new mystery series set in the 1930s and featuring retired magician Joseph Spector. The next book, The Murder Wheel, is out in July!

6. Karen Joy Fowler – Another book I enjoyed last year was Booth, Karen Joy Fowler’s fictional biography of the theatrical Booth family. Her books had never appealed to me before, but I obviously need to look at them again,

7. Patricia Wentworth – I chose Fool Errant as my first Patricia Wentworth novel for last year’s 1929 Club. I didn’t love it but it was entertaining and I’m hoping to try another of her books soon, maybe one of her Miss Silver mysteries.

8. William Boyd – Another of my books of the year for 2022 was my first William Boyd novel, The Romantic. He has a very extensive backlist which I’m looking forward to exploring.

9. Jill Dawson – I enjoyed The Bewitching, based on the true story of the Witches of Warboys. Her previous books seem to cover a wide range of topics and settings – the problem will be deciding which one to try next!

10. ETA Hoffmann – I read The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr for last year’s German Literature Month. It’s a very unusual and original novel and was a good introduction to his work!

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Have you read any of these authors? Which new (or new-to-you) authors did you discover last year?

A Marriage of Fortune by Anne O’Brien

This sequel to The Royal Game continues the story of the Paston family. The Pastons were an influential Norfolk family during the 15th century and left behind a collection of private correspondence, known as the Paston Letters, which are a valuable source of information on life in England at this time. In this novel and her previous one, Anne O’Brien brings the story of the Pastons to life, using their letters to provide the outline of the plot. You could read this book as a standalone if you wanted to, but I would recommend reading both in order if you can.

A Marriage of Fortune is again narrated by several of the Paston women. First there’s Margaret Mautby Paston, now a widow with seven children. Her eldest son, Sir John, is now head of the family following the death of his father, but Margaret still takes an active part in managing the household, arranging the marriages of her younger children and continuing the ongoing feud against the Duke of Norfolk over the ownership of Caister Castle. Margaret’s priority is seeing that the Pastons continue to rise through the ranks of society, so she is furious when her eldest daughter Margery announces that she is in love with the family bailiff, Richard Calle. She refuses to allow a marriage between the two, but is unprepared for the lengths to which Margery is prepared to go.

The relationship between Margaret and Margery is very sad to read about. Margery is another of our narrators, which means we get to know exactly how she feels about her mother’s refusal to accept her love for Richard and the family estrangement that occurs as a result. Margaret believes that a daughter’s first duty should be to her parents and that Margery has no right to consider her own happiness, but there’s always a sense that she might come to regret taking this stance and we are kept wondering whether mother and daughter will be reconciled in the end.

We also hear from Margaret’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Paston Poynings, whose husband has been killed fighting on the Yorkist side at the Second Battle of St Alban’s, leaving her a widow with a young son. Like Margaret, Elizabeth has found herself facing a struggle to hold on to her late husband’s estates, which are being claimed by the powerful Percy family. A fourth narrator is Anne Haute, cousin of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen. Anne is betrothed to Margaret’s son, Sir John Paston, but with the rapidly changing political situation in England – Edward IV on the throne one minute, Henry VI the next – it seems that Sir John is reluctant to either make the marriage official or release her from it. I had a lot of sympathy for poor Anne when she begins to discover that she’s wasted years of her life on a man who clearly doesn’t really love her.

I enjoyed A Marriage of Fortune; this is one of my favourite periods to read about, but I still haven’t read the original Paston Letters or Helen Castor’s non-fiction account of them, Blood and Roses, despite having had the latter on my TBR pile for several years now. This was maybe a good thing as far as this novel was concerned, as it meant that although I was familiar with the historical background – the kings and queens, the battles and rebellions – I didn’t know the personal stories of the individual Paston family members, so I never knew what was going to happen to them next. However, I do think this novel, like the first one, was slightly too long, with a lot of information packed into it. It may have been better to have focused on fewer characters; Elizabeth Poynings’ story, in particular, felt very separate from the others and could possibly have been left out.

I’m not sure whether there will be a third book on the Pastons or whether Anne O’Brien will be moving on to something else now. Either way, she always chooses interesting historical women to write about so I know it will be worth looking forward to.

Thanks to Orion for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 2/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett

Imagine you find a box of documents that make up the research material for a true crime book. After reading them, you see that the book will shed new light on the eighteen-year-old case of the Alperton Angels – but what will you do next? Destroy the documents? Or hand them over to the police? This is the premise of Janice Hallett’s new novel, The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels. It’s fascinating, but Hallett has a style all of her own which can take a while to get used to. I knew what to expect as I loved her previous novel, The Twyford Code – one of my favourite books of 2022 – and I think I enjoyed this one even more.

The case of the Alperton Angels involved a cult led by a man who called himself the Angel Gabriel, two vulnerable teenagers and a baby they believed to be the Antichrist. When true crime writer Amanda Bailey is commissioned to write a book for a new series re-assessing historic crimes, she decides to write about the Alperton Angels from the perspective of the baby, who is now about to turn eighteen. The only problem is, she has no idea where the baby is – or even who they are. Even worse, she discovers that one of her rivals, Oliver Menzies, is working on the same book from the same angle. Who will find the baby first and uncover the truth behind the Alperton Angels?

The whole novel is presented as Amanda’s collection of research material: emails, letters, WhatsApp messages, and even excerpts from books and film scripts. Where she has met and interviewed people involved in the case, these conversations are transcribed by her assistant Ellie, who adds her own amusing observations and asides. This modern, multimedia style of storytelling is not something that would usually sound appealing to me, but in Janice Hallett’s hands I love it. And actually, when I think about it, it’s really just an updated form of the classic epistolary novels I’ve always enjoyed, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t like it!

Despite the fragmentary style, I could still get a feel for the personalities of the main characters – Amanda persistent and tenacious, Oliver gullible and easily led, and Ellie witty and down to earth – but there’s also a sense that there’s a lot we’re not being told. How much can you trust what someone says in an email or in an interview where they know they’re being recorded? Similarly, the facts behind the case of the Alperton Angels are unravelled very slowly, one little piece of information at a time, and with many of the suspects and witnesses following their own agenda, we don’t even know if what we are reading is true or will be proved false later in the book. Things do eventually start to come together and make sense – and if you continue to the end, you’ll be rewarded with some great twists!

I found The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels completely gripping and difficult to put down, particularly as there are no traditional chapter breaks so no logical places to stop. Now I’m looking forward to reading Janice Hallett’s first novel, The Appeal.

Thanks to Viper for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A new year means the start of a new Agatha Christie challenge! Read Christie 2023 is hosted by the official Agatha Christie site and this year the focus is on methods and motives. The theme for January is jealousy and the chosen book is Sad Cypress. However, I read that one quite recently so I’ve gone with one of the alternative suggestions for this month, Cards on the Table.

Published in 1936, this is a Poirot novel, but it also features three of Christie’s other recurring characters, all of whom work together to solve the mystery. They are Superintendent Battle, the Scotland Yard detective; former Army officer and intelligence agent, Colonel Race; and Ariadne Oliver, the famous crime author. All three, along with Poirot, are invited to a dinner party hosted by Mr Shaitana, a wealthy man known as a collector of rare objects. He tells Poirot that he will also be inviting a collection of criminals – four people he believes have committed murder but never been caught.

During the party, the eight guests divide into two groups and sit down to play bridge. Several hours later, Mr Shaitana, who wasn’t participating, is found dead in his chair by the fire – stabbed with a small dagger by one of his guests while the others were engrossed in their game. The four sleuths can obviously be ruled out, but any one of the other four could be the murderer. To get to the truth, Poirot and his friends must investigate the background of each suspect to see whether Shaitana was correct and each of them had already killed before.

Cards on the Table begins with a foreword in which Christie explains that unlike most crime novels where the least likely suspect is usually the culprit, this book has four suspects who are all equally likely. They have all (allegedly) committed murder in the past, so all have a motive – fear that Shaitana will expose their previous crimes to the other guests. There’s Dr Roberts, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of at least one of his patients; Major Despard, whose expedition to the Amazon is shrouded in mystery; young Anne Meredith, who tries to cover up her reasons for leaving a previous job; and Mrs Lorrimer, an expert bridge player whose secrets prove particularly difficult to unearth. I suspected all of them at various points, but every time I thought I’d worked it out, Christie threw another twist into the story and I had to think again!

I loved the idea of having four different detectives working together in the same novel (it’s a shame Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence hadn’t been invited to the party too!) and each of them has a chance to contribute to the solving of the mystery. Colonel Race has a disappointingly small part, but we see a lot of Battle and Mrs Oliver – who is often described as a self-parody of Christie herself and provides an opportunity to comment on the writing of detective novels. Of course, it’s Poirot who correctly identifies the murderer in the end!

I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d had more knowledge of bridge, which is a game I don’t play and don’t really understand. Part of Poirot’s investigation revolves around the score cards and an analysis of each suspect’s playing style, so this meant very little to me. Luckily, though, it’s not completely essential to be able to follow all of this and there are other clues to piece together as well.

February’s Read Christie theme is ‘a blunt object’ and the group read will be Partners in Crime, which again is a book I’ve already read. I’ll wait until they reveal the alternative choices for the month and see if any appeal to me.

Historical Musings #77: My year in historical fiction – 2022

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. For my first Musings post of the year, I am looking back at the historical fiction I read in 2022 and have put together my usual selection of charts and lists! I have kept most of the same categories I’ve used for the previous six years so that it should be easy to make comparisons and to see if there have been any interesting changes in my reading patterns and choices (here are my posts for 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016).

Before I begin, just a reminder that I do actually read other genres but haven’t included those books in these stats!

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Time periods read about in 2022:

No big changes here – the 19th and 20th centuries are nearly always the most popular settings for my historical reading and the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries usually do well too. Earlier time periods never feature as strongly, but I was pleased to find two books set in the Roman period that I enjoyed last year (The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper and The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff).

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43% of the historical fiction authors I read in 2022 were new to me. This is more than the last few years (39% in 2021 and 32% in 2020) and I think that’s a good balance of new authors and old favourites.

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I read 3 historical novels in translationThe Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting (Norwegian, transl. Deborah Dawkin), Ashes in the Snow by Oriana Rammuno (Italian, transl. Katherine Gregor) and Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish, transl. Ekin Oklap). I must try to do better in 2023!

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Sources of historical fiction novels read in 2022:

NetGalley – 41
Books from TBR – 15
Other review copies – 7

As I mentioned in my 2023 Reading Resolutions post, I have been making an effort to get up to date with my NetGalley shelf and I expect to be requesting and reading fewer NetGalley books this year. This will allow me to get on with reading books from my own TBR, including the older books that tend to be the ones I enjoy most. Which brings me to the next category…

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Publication dates of books read in 2022:

Following on from my comments on NetGalley above, you can see in this chart that my 2022 historical reading was dominated by newly published books. I only read four books published in the 20th century, but I expect these figures to look quite different in next year’s charts as I focus on picking up more books from my own shelves.

The oldest historical fiction novel I read in 2022 was Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck, published in 1929. It tells the story of the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan.

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9% of my historical reads in 2022 were historical mysteries.

This is about the same as in previous years. Here are three I enjoyed reading in 2022:

Traitor in the Ice by KJ Maitland
Death and the Conjuror by Tom Mead
The Blood Flower by Alex Reeve.

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I read historical fiction set in 17 different countries in 2022:

As you can see, I still read far more historical fiction set in England than anywhere else, which is mainly a reflection of the books that are being published and coming to my attention rather than a deliberate choice of mine. I’m happy with the range of other countries I read about in 2022, which is more than the previous year – and I’m almost certain that Fortune by Amanda Smyth is the first book I’ve ever read set in Trinidad.

In addition, I read a book set almost entirely at sea (Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass) and one on a fictional Mediterranean island (Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk).

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Four historical men I read about in 2022:

Edward Whalley (Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris)
Varian Fry (The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer)
Mahmood Mattan (The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed)
Giorgio Barbarelli (The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben)

Four historical women I read about in 2022:

Alice Samuel (The Bewitching by Jill Dawson)
Joan of Arc (Joan by Katherine J Chen)
Bridget Cromwell (The Rebel Daughter by Miranda Malins)
Lyudmila Pavlichenko (The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn)

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What about you? Did you read any good historical fiction last year? Have you read any of the books or authors I’ve mentioned here and have you noticed any patterns or trends in your own reading?