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.

The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo – trans. Bryan Karetnyk

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.

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

This Japanese murder mystery was originally published in 1987 and is now available from Pushkin Vertigo in an English translation by Ho-Ling Wong. Having recently read two other reissued Japanese classic mysteries, The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo and Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I jumped at the chance to read this one, especially when I saw comparisons with one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, And Then There Were None.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with seven students, all members of their university Mystery Club, arriving on the lonely island of Tsunojima, where they are planning to spend the week. It’s the perfect location for a group of crime lovers because a series of unsolved murders took place there the year before, so the students are looking forward to exploring the island and using their skills as amateur detectives to investigate the mystery. Soon after their arrival, however, they discover that someone is planning to murder them one by one – but is the killer one of the seven or is someone else hiding on the island?

This is an interesting novel and a quick one to read; although it takes a while to get started, the pace rapidly picks up once the first murder takes place. The action switches between the island and the mainland, where Kawaminami, an ex-member of the Mystery Club, is carrying out some investigations of his own, having received a letter which leads him to question what really happened on Tsunojima Island the year before. The alternating narratives add some tension to the story as we wait to see whether Kawaminami will solve the mystery before everyone on the island is dead.

The similarities with And Then There Were None were obvious as soon as I started to read, but sadly this book doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the Christie novel – and the eventual solution and motive are quite different anyway. However, it’s clear that Yukito Ayatsuji must have been an admirer of Golden Age crime novels and he pays homage to them in various ways all the way through the book. The seven members of the Mystery Club have all taken the names of classic crime writers and are known as Ellery, Agatha, Leroux, Carr, Van Dine, Poe and Orczy, while Kawaminami’s nickname is Conan – or sometimes Doyle!

The characters themselves, though, never really come to life at all and feel interchangeable, with very little to differentiate one from another. This leads to a lack of emotional involvement and I found that I didn’t really care who was murdered or who the culprit was. I felt completely detached from what was happening and although I could appreciate the cleverness of the plot, it wasn’t a story that I could become fully absorbed in. To be fair, this seems to be typical of Japanese mystery novels in general, particularly the subgenre known as honkaku, of which this book is said to be a classic example. Honkaku books have been described as traditional plot-driven ‘puzzle mysteries’ with complex solutions and appear to be less concerned with character development.

Still, I found things to enjoy in this novel. The revelations at the end took me completely by surprise and, if I hadn’t had so many other books waiting to be read, I would have been tempted to go back and re-read at least the first few chapters to see how I could have missed the clues. And I loved the descriptions of the Decagon House, the building in which the students stay during their time on the island – a decagonal building with decagonal rooms, decagonal tables and even decagonal cups!

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

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

A three-fingered man. A room painted all in red. The eerie music of a Japanese koto. A katana – a sword – standing blade-first in the snow. These all form part of this classic murder mystery, originally published in Japanese in 1946 and now available from Pushkin Press in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

The Honjin Murders is set in November 1937 in the village of Okamura, home to the Ichiyanagi family, whose ancestors once ran a honjin – an inn where noble travellers would stay during the Edo period. Those times are long gone, but the Ichiyanagis are still proud of their illustrious lineage. At the beginning of the novel, the various members of the family are gathering for the wedding of the eldest son and heir, Kenzo, to a young schoolteacher, Katsuko. Kenzo’s family are not very happy about the bride’s humble origins, but the marriage goes ahead and everyone retires to bed for the night. A few hours later, screams are heard from the newlyweds’ room and the pair are found inside stabbed to death.

With the doors locked and no fresh footprints in the snow surrounding the building, it seems that the perfect locked room murder has been committed. Luckily, Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo knows just the man who will be able to solve it: his friend, the private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Ginzo sends for Kindaichi who arrives in the village looking dishevelled, unassuming and unimpressive (it’s difficult not to make comparisons with that other famously untidy detective, Columbo, although this book was published decades earlier) but appearances can be deceptive and it quickly becomes clear that Kindaichi has the sort of sharp mind and powers of deduction that are necessary to solve such a complex crime.

I won’t say any more about the plot of the novel or the mystery itself. I didn’t work out how the murder was committed or who the culprit was and I was happy just to watch the solution unfold – although like another Japanese mystery novel I read last year, Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I felt that there seemed to be more focus on puzzle solving and providing an ingenious technical explanation for the crime rather than on character and motivation. Maybe that is a common feature of Japanese crime fiction; I haven’t read enough of it yet to know.

What I particularly loved about this book was the style in which it was written, with the narrator (presumably meant to be Yokomizo himself) speaking directly to the reader and breaking off from the story now and then to discuss other classic mystery novels, especially of the locked room variety, and their similarities to the Honjin case:

The first that came to mind were Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Maurice Leblanc’s The Teeth of the Tiger; then there’s The Canary Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case, both by S.S. Van Dine; and finally, Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders…But this real-life case wasn’t quite like any of the above-mentioned. Maybe, just maybe, the killer had read a selection of stories like these, dissected all of the different devices used, then picked out the elements that he needed, constructing his own device. At least that’s one theory.

Yokomizo may have drawn inspiration from some of those earlier mysteries, but The Honjin Murders itself feels original and different, as well as being a very clever and entertaining novel. Although I hadn’t heard of Kosuke Kindaichi until I read this book, it seems that he appears in over seventy novels (one of which, The Inugami Curse, is also available in English from Pushkin Press). I will look forward to meeting him again!

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

A remote, snow covered mansion; a group of people arriving for a Christmas house party; a seemingly impossible locked-room murder; a detective whose methods are unusual and unorthodox. These may sound like the ingredients of a classic British Golden Age mystery, but Murder in the Crooked House is actually a Japanese novel first published in 1982 which Pushkin Vertigo have now made available for the first time in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

I was really looking forward to reading this book as it sounded like just my sort of thing, and it did get off to a great start. The descriptions of the Ice Floe Mansion in northern Japan are fascinating, with its sloping floors and drawbridge leading to a leaning tower (which gives the house its nickname, the Crooked House). Inside, the mansion resembles a fairground fun house with a maze of rooms, unusually positioned staircases, and a room containing a collection of Tengu masks and mechanical dolls, including a life-size Golem which is said to get up and walk around at night.

This weird and wonderful building is the home of retired businessman Kozaburo Hamamoto, who has invited his family and friends to spend the Christmas of 1983 with him. The guests include his daughter Eiko and her two suitors Togai and Sasaki, his great-nephew Yoshihiko, and a former business partner Eikichi Kikuoka, who brings several of his employees along with him. On their first night in the Crooked House, one of the guests is found dead inside a locked room, Kikuoka’s secretary is terrified by a face at her top-floor window, and Golem appears to have thrown himself into a snowdrift outside. The local police are baffled; there seems to be no explanation for any of these incidents and no obvious motive either. It is only after several more murders take place and the brilliant detective Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives on the scene that the truth is finally revealed.

Murder in the Crooked House is a very clever murder mystery. I found the culprit easy to guess – there was only one person it could have been, in my opinion – but what I didn’t know was how they carried out the murders. The solution is certainly very original and although Shimada states in a ‘Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book that he has given us all the clues we need to solve it, I will be impressed if any reader has actually managed to work out the exact method used by the murderer! However, the cleverness of the novel was also one of the things I disliked about it.

The book contains a number of diagrams showing floor plans and layouts of rooms and sadly these weren’t included in the ebook I received for review, which obviously wasn’t the finished version. Although Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature came to my rescue and allowed me to at least see the plan of the house, I think even if I’d been able to study all of the diagrams I would still have found the plot overly complicated. As well as a lot of importance being placed on alibis and who was in which room at what time, there’s also a lot of discussion of distances of windows from floors, positions of ventilation holes in walls and which rooms can be reached from which staircase. I do like mysteries with puzzles to solve, but I felt that this one became too technical – too concerned with the details rather than with the characters and their motivations. As a result, the characters seemed to lack depth and didn’t feel like real people to me, which wasn’t helped by the dialogue which felt a bit stilted, although that could have been due to the translation.

Most of the novel is written in the third person, so I was surprised to find that, when Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives at the Crooked House well into the second half of the book, the perspective switches to the first person (from the point of view of Kazumi Ishioka, Mitarai’s friend who has accompanied him to the house). It seemed unusual to have such a change so far into the book, but I got used to it quickly enough. Although this is the first novel I’ve read by Shimada, I’ve learned that this is one of a series of mysteries featuring the partnership of Mitarai and Ishioka, as a sort of Holmes and Watson. I would possibly try another book in the series – the first one, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is also now available in English and presumably some of the others will follow.

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

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

For many years, Amaterasu has been grieving for the loss of her daughter and grandson, believed to have been killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Even now, Amaterasu still struggles with the feeling of guilt – why did she survive when they did not? – and with the need to find someone to blame. When a stranger comes to her door, claiming to be her lost grandson Hideo, she is unable to believe that it’s truly him. To prove he really is who he says he is, he gives Amaterasu a package of diaries and letters which shed some light on what happened all those years ago and help her to decide whether this man could possibly be Hideo.

As Amaterasu sits and reads the papers she has been given, she is forced to revisit moments from the past which she would rather forget and in the process comes to know more about her daughter Yuko than she did while she was alive. It’s obvious from the start that the villain of the story, as far as Amaterasu is concerned, is Jomei Sato, Yuko’s lover, but we don’t know at first why she dislikes him so much and why she believes he played a part in her daughter’s death. Before we can make sense of the chain of events that led to Yuko standing in a cathedral in Nagasaki which was destroyed when the bomb fell, we have to go back in time to see the beginnings of Yuko’s relationship with Sato – and then further back again to discover Amaterasu’s own personal story and to understand what makes her feel the way she does.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautifully written novel dealing with a subject which I’m sure must have been difficult and emotional to research and to write about. Although Jackie Copleton didn’t actually live through the bombing of Nagasaki herself, her descriptions of the bombing (or pikadon, from the Japanese words for flash and boom) and its aftermath are vivid, intense and shocking. This is not just a novel about war, however. The events of that terrible day in August 1945 are just one part of the story, along with other topics and themes such as family, love, forgiveness and how different people cope with loss and heartbreak.

My knowledge of Japanese history and culture is very limited so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the novel, apart from to say that it all seemed convincing enough to me! Every chapter begins with a Japanese word or term and its English translation, each one giving us some insight into one small aspect of Japanese life. Sometimes the relevance of the word and its definition to the chapter which follows is obvious, but sometimes I had to think about why a particular word was chosen to represent a particular chapter.

This was an interesting read (especially as it’s one of my goals to read more historical fiction set in Japan) but, with the exception of the pikadon chapter, I didn’t find it quite as moving as I’d expected. This could partly be because of the structure of the novel – the story takes the form of Amaterasu’s memories interspersed with short extracts from Yuko’s diaries and Sato’s letters, and this meant that I was always very aware that I was reading about events that were already in the past, rather than actually being there with the characters sharing their experiences as they happened. I think it might have been this lack of immediacy which stopped me from fully connecting with the characters on an emotional level.

Still, I thought this was a very impressive novel, particularly as it is Jackie Copleton’s first. I would say that I enjoyed it, but ‘enjoyed’ is not really the right word to use given the subject of the book. Instead I’ll say that it is fascinating, gripping and informative and I would be very happy to read more books by this author.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer

the-shoguns-queen Japan, as I discussed in my recent Historical Musings post, is a country whose history I know very little about. Lesley Downer has written several books about Japan, including a quartet of novels set in the 19th century; I remember reading about one of the others on The Idle Woman’s blog a few months ago, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Downer’s latest book, The Shogun’s Queen. This is the final book in the quartet to be published, but it’s the first chronologically so even though I haven’t read the other three I didn’t expect to be at any disadvantage.

After a brief prologue, the novel opens in 1853 with Japan on the cusp of change. Until now, the country has been largely insulated from the outside world and apart from some limited contact with Dutch traders, Japanese ports have been closed to the west. The sight of barbarian ships approaching, then, causes panic, fear and confusion. What do the barbarians (westerners) want and what will they do if Japan refuses to agree to their demands?

It’s during this turbulent period that our heroine, Okatsu, is adopted by the ambitious Lord Nariakira of Satsuma and taken into his household, where she is renamed Atsu. Adoption, in Japan at this time, is a way of raising a woman’s rank and improving her marriage prospects, so a few years later Nariakira arranges for Atsu to be adopted again, this time by his brother-in-law Prince Konoe. His ultimate aim is to marry Atsu to Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun, and in 1856 this aim is achieved. Nariakira hopes Atsu can use her position as Iesada’s wife to influence the Shogun’s choice of a successor – but as Atsu gets to know her new husband she discovers how difficult that task will be.

The approach of western ships means Japan is facing a new set of threats, dangers and opportunities, so strong leadership is desperately needed. I’m not going to say too much about the character of Iesada, but as soon as he appears on the page it is obvious that he can’t possibly be that strong leader. Poor Atsu; although she does begin to feel affection and even love, of a sort, for the Shogun, it is not a normal or happy marriage and it would be difficult not to have sympathy for her. Iesada’s mother is a cruel, manipulative woman who resents having to relinquish any of her control over her son, and this makes it almost impossible for Atsu to carry out the instructions she has been given by Nariakira.

As if Atsu’s situation wasn’t already bad enough, she has been forced to separate from the man she truly loves, Kaneshige, and doesn’t expect to see him again, knowing that once she enters Edo Castle as the Shogun’s wife she will never be allowed to leave. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about this period of Japanese history before I started reading, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of Atsu’s life, both before her marriage, when she lived in the Satsuma domain, and later, in the confines of the Women’s Palace in Edo (the former name for Tokyo). It was also fascinating to read about the ‘barbarians’ – Americans and Europeans – and how they and their culture appeared when seen through Japanese eyes.

I would have no hesitation in recommending The Shogun’s Queen to readers who, like myself, are looking for an accessible introduction to the history of 19th century Japan. A lack of familiarity with the period is not a problem as Lesley Downer makes everything easy to follow and understand; the book also includes a map, a list of characters and a detailed afterword in which the author provides more information on the historical background and gives us an idea of which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are largely fictional (such as the relationship between Atsu and Kaneshige). First and foremost, though, this is a gripping and entertaining story with characters to love and characters to hate. I enjoyed it and will be exploring Lesley Downer’s other books, as well as continuing to look out for more novels set in Japan.

I received a copy of The Shogun’s Queen from the publisher for review.