Over the last few years I have discovered several Japanese crime authors – including Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji – thanks to Pushkin Press making them available in English translations, but the one who has impressed me the most is Seishi Yokomizo. I really enjoyed The Honjin Murders, one of his many books to feature the detective Kosuke Kindaichi; I didn’t like The Village of Eight Graves, another from the same series, quite as much, but it’s still an entertaining read.
First published in 1950, the novel is set in the small Japanese village of Eight Graves where, centuries earlier, eight samurai were brutally murdered, bringing down a curse upon the village and giving it its sinister-sounding name. In the 1920s the curse struck again when a village leader went on a violent killing spree. Now, twenty-five years later, our narrator Tatsuya Terada, a young man who has been raised in Kobe by his mother and stepfather, is informed by a lawyer that his real father was the man responsible for those terrible murders. It seems that Tatsuya is now the heir to the family estate and must return to Eight Graves to claim his inheritance – but before he has even left Kobe he receives an anonymous letter warning him to stay away.
On his arrival in Eight Graves, Tatsuya finds that most of the other villagers are hostile and unwelcoming, believing that his presence will bring bad luck and tragedy to the village yet again. And so, when more murders begin to take place, suspicion immediately falls on Tatsuya – but as he is our narrator, we know that he is innocent. Or is he? Kosuke Kindaichi is called in to investigate, but at the same time Tatsuya is carrying out investigations of his own to find the real culprit and clear his own name.
Unlike in The Honjin Murders, where the untidy and unassuming Kindaichi plays a big role in the story, in this book we hardly see him at all. Almost as soon as he arrives in Eight Graves he disappears into the background again. We know that he is working on solving the mystery, but we don’t actually watch him doing it because we stick exclusively with Tatsuya’s narration and he and Kindaichi have very little interaction until nearer the end of the book. This makes this one less of a detective novel and more of a thriller or adventure novel, as Tatsuya explores the village alone looking for clues and stumbling into danger.
Yokomizo creates a wonderful atmosphere in this book with Tatsuya’s investigations leading him into networks of tunnels, caves with stalactites, and underground lakes and caverns. The legend of the eight murdered samurai is also incorporated into the story, along with a search for hidden treasure said to be buried somewhere within the village and a rivalry between two branches of Tatsuya’s family: the ‘House of the East’ and the ‘House of the West’. It’s an entertaining novel and there’s always something happening – but I did think the parts where Tatsuya is wandering around in the caves and tunnels became a little bit tedious. The absence of Kosuke Kindaichi for most of the book was also disappointing and I think I would have preferred a more conventional detective novel with the focus on solving the mystery rather than on treasure hunting.
Still, this book was fun to read and I loved the setting. Now I need to read the other Yokomizo novel currently available in English: The Inugami Curse.
Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.