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.