Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (Trans. Louise Heal Kawai)

The second book I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list is this 1971 Japanese mystery novel, now available in an English translation. This is the fourth book in Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi series to be published in English by Pushkin Press, but actually the second in original publication order. It works as a standalone, with a few references to Kindaichi’s first case, The Honjin Murders, so you could easily start with this one if you wanted to.

Death on Gokumon Island is set in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, and nearly ten years after the events of The Honjin Murders. Kosuke Kindaichi is on his way to the strangely named Gokumon – or ‘Hell’s Gate’ – Island to deliver the sad news of his army friend Chimata Kito’s death. Kindaichi knows this will be a difficult task, but what really worries him is a prediction made by the dying man that his three half-sisters, who all live on the island in the family home, are going to be murdered.

Arriving on Gokumon Island, Kindaichi gets to know the members of the Kito household, including Chimata’s father who is said to be mad and kept locked up behind bars, as well as another rival branch of the family who live nearby and would benefit from deaths in the main Kito family. The scene is set for a classic murder mystery – and it’s not long before the first murder does take place. Kindaichi begins to investigate, but the islanders are suspicious of newcomers and are reluctant to answer questions.

I struggled to get into this book at first; I felt that we were being introduced to a lot of characters all at once and it was difficult to distinguish between them. I’ve found that with all of the Japanese mysteries I’ve read the authors seem to be more concerned with puzzle-solving than with character development, although Yokomizo is better in that respect than some of the others. After a few chapters I had settled into the story and began to enjoy it. It was good to see more of Kosuke Kindaichi than we did in The Village of Eight Graves; he’s quite endearing with his nervous stammer and head-scratching and the way he makes mistakes and isn’t afraid to admit to them.

Louise Heal Kawai’s translation is clear and easy to read (she also did the translation for The Honjin Murders, although not Eight Graves, which was translated by Bryan Karetnyk). I’m sure Japanese must be a difficult language to translate into English and I do wonder if any nuance is lost along the way, but I was impressed by the way she managed to capture the meaning of the wordplay, poetry and haikus that form part of the plot. I felt I was learning quite a lot about Japanese culture, as well as post-war life in a country that had been on the losing side.

This book has been compared with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but I don’t think they have much in common other than that they are both mysteries set on islands. This is a very different sort of island, for a start – unlike Christie’s, it’s inhabited, with a fishing community, a mayor, doctors, priests and barbers (to name just some of the characters we meet) – and although there may be a few similarities in the way the murders are carried out, the solution is completely different. It’s a solution I didn’t manage to guess at all; I was convinced I had picked up on an important clue halfway through but it turned out to be a red herring!

Now I need to find time to read The Inugami Curse, the other Yokomizo book currently available in English.

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

This is book 2/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

9 thoughts on “Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (Trans. Louise Heal Kawai)

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Yes, from experience I can say that Japanese is a very difficult language to translate from (as is Chinese). There is so much hinted at rather than said explicitly, so much ellipsis, so many nuances and shifts in tone, and it can all sound rather flat when transposed into the much clearer English language, where you have to make some clear translation choices. That’s why I no longer translate from Japanese – too hard for me, I’ll stick with the much easier German and Romanian!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for confirming that! I think Louise Heal Kawai is doing a good job with this series, as far as I can tell, but I regret not being able to read the books in the original Japanese.

  2. mallikabooks15 says:

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. Like you, I was glad to see more of Kindaichi in this book than we see in Eight Graves and that he comes across as human rather than someone above the common rung. Agreed on the translation too–Kawai has done a great job. The only thing I wondered about is some of the casual sounding dialogue as one wouldn’t ordinarily associate that with Japanese.

    • Helen says:

      It was disappointing to see so little of Kindaichi in Eight Graves, so I was pleased he had a much bigger role in this book. I know what you mean about the dialogue – I wonder if it was the same in the original Japanese book or a decision of the translator.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read quite a few of them over the last year or two – they have all been complex mysteries with very clever solutions, but lacking the strong characterisation I prefer.

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