It has been quite a while since I have sampled any classic Japanese crime fiction, seven years in fact. Shocking I know! But I think reading The Decagon House (1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji may have put me off, due to the dryness of the prose. Yet the recent translations from Pushkin Press Vertigo (The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse), have incrementally been piquing my curiosity, so I finally decided to give one a go.
‘Kosuke Kindaichi arrives on the remote Gokumon Island bearing tragic news—the son of one of the island’s most important families has died, on a troop transport ship bringing him back home after the Second World War. But Kindaichi has not come merely as a messenger—with his last words, the dying man warned that his three step-sisters’ lives would now be in danger. The scruffy detective is determined to get to the bottom of this mysterious prophesy, and to protect the three women if he can. As Kosuke Kindaichi attempts to unravel the island’s secrets, a series of gruesome murders begins. He investigates, but soon finds himself in mortal danger from both the unknown killer and the clannish locals, who resent this outsider meddling in their affairs.’
You know you are off to a good start when your book commences with a map! I think this was a smart move on the publishers’ part as the illustration really helped me to visualise the island and therefore take on board the various alibis I encountered later in the story.
After that we have a prologue which tells the reader about the pirating history of the island. There is more than one theory as to how the island got its name, Gokumon, meaning Hell’s Gate. The island unsurprisingly has a violent past history, and we are also told of its insularity. From the translation style I could tell a conversational tone was being striven for, yet I still found a dry prose style creeping in. However, thankfully overall I would say this book suffers from it less than The Decagon House Murders, although I must confess that my mind did glaze over when one of the murder methods is explored by the sleuth. There was a little too much maths and physics for my liking! Another thing I noticed stylistically is that there are sections periodically in the narrative which are heavy on description and in the first quarter of the book I would say the plot moves quite slowly. The speed does pick up later.
If like me you have not read any other stories featuring Kosuke Kindaichi, you don’t need to worry about starting mid-series as chapter 1 provides a recap on what he has been doing since solving The Honjin Murders. I found this useful as it helped me to orientate myself and I also didn’t feel that this earlier mystery was spoilt. I found Kindaichi’s entry into the story interesting, as the text uses clothing as a way of describing his otherness, a facet often linked to the role of detective:
‘At the far edge of the stern section, there was an odd-looking passenger. The man was dressed in a traditional serge hakama skirt. On his head was a shapeless, crumpled felt hat. These days even peasant farmers would wear Western clothes, or at least an approximation of Western clothing at home. Off on a trip, the world and his wife would be dressed Western style. Right now, on this ship there was only one other man in traditional Japanese clothing, and he was a Buddhist priest. In those days, to persist in wearing traditional Japanese dress took some stubbornness, but this passenger didn’t look stubborn.’
This sense of him being an outsider felt very applicable given the closed off nature of the community he was visiting. I was also surprised to learn that at this stage there was this preference for Western clothing. I guess I thought this interest might have developed later.
Death on Gokumon Island is set in 1946 and I felt this was a really engaging time period to situate the mystery in. I have read a lot of Western classic crime fiction which explores the short term and longer-term consequences of WW2, such as Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced and Elizabeth Ferrars’ Hunt the Tortoise, but I hitherto had not read any from a country within the Axis powers. This aspect of the story was really fascinating. Kindaichi, we are told, was drafted into the army, and became stranded at Wewak in New Guinea. It transpires that his regiment had become largely forgotten by both sides in the conflict, yet it was decimated by illness and malnutrition.
Given that Japan was on the losing side of the war I wondered what attitudes the writer would bestow on his characters regarding it. War in the narrative is not glamourised and instead WW2 is regarded as ‘ridiculous’ and a greater focus is put on the devastating effect the conflict has had on the landscape as well as the people. An example of this can be found near the beginning of the book:
“This area isn’t even the worst. If you head west – because we’re close to China, the islands are full of big craters. They look like beehives. There was even one island that was secretly making poison gas. Now they have no idea how to deal with all the gas that’s left there.”
The same character continues, expressing annoyance at the military impact on Gokumon island, where they had dug massive holes for anti-aircraft guns: “The poem goes, ‘Destroy a country, but its mountains and rivers remain,’ but it’s more like ‘Destroy a country and completely mangle its mountains and rivers beyond recognition.'”
When the story opens Kindaichi has been demobbed. We are told what his mission is in going to Gokumon island. He is asked by a dying comrade to go to his home and save his sisters, who he believes are going to be murdered once he is dead. It is not until the end of the mystery that we can fully understand why this dying soldier has these anxieties and why his death would precipitate the violent demises of his siblings.
I don’t think I had any preconceptions of what these sisters would be like, yet I was actually quite surprised by how unpleasant they were. I wonder if this is because their horribleness is fuelled by extreme self-obsession and juvenile and immature personalities. They are meant to be older teenagers, yet their actions and speech suggest a much younger person. In a child they might have been deemed precocious, but as young adults such behaviour feels less acceptable. Kindaichi perceives them as gorgons, not least because ‘they’d been more concerned with their hairstyles […] than by their own brother’s death.’ And when they begin to die there is no sobering up of the remaining siblings. It occurred to me that maybe the writer was deploying the trope of the unpleasant victim, or victims in this case, as none of them are characters you are sad to see go.
Some authors give their fictional detectives particular mannerisms or traits. Hercule Poirot has his love of symmetry and order and Miss Silver coughs so much in some of her cases that you can become alarmed that the book will conclude with her being diagnosed as suffering from TB. Yet in today’s read I have found a new trait for a sleuth to be allocated and that is… DANDRUFF! Kosuke Kindaichi scratches his heads so much that I wanted to ask him if he had head lice or whether he wanted some Head and Shoulders. Surprisingly, Kindaichi’s dandruff does impact those around him as at one point he: ‘immediately began to scratch his head, a look of joy on his face. He scratched so hard that dandruff flew in clouds around him. Shimizu was forced to take a good few steps backwards to get out of the line of fire.’ Seriously how much dandruff does this man have?
One thing which surprised me when reading this book, was how the prose style, at times, took on the tone of an English drawing room drama. I am not sure if this is present in the original text, with the author leaning into this style deliberately, or whether this is an element which has come out of the translation process. The passage which exemplifies this the best is this one:
“Yes, I heard that last night Hana-chan was found murdered in this place, and the whole village is talking about it. People are claiming that at my instigation, Ukai-san lured Hana-chan here and that he and I killed her together. Isn’t that the most outrageous thing you ever heard?”
“I see. Well, that is indeed a terrible thing to say. However, Oshiho-san, don’t you think that one might say that there is no smoke without fire? Are you sure that you didn’t do something along those lines?”
“Me? I am devastated that even you, Ryonen-san, would cast such aspersions.”
Maybe because I was not expecting it and because I felt very grounded in the realities of post-War Japan, I found this style a bit disconcerting, as though it didn’t quite fit in.
I think my biggest bugbear with Kindaichi’s approach to sleuthing is that he belligerently refuses to tell the local authority figures and police, even the policeman he is good friends with, why he has come to Gokumon island – i.e., to save the lives of his comrade’s sisters. His reluctance to reveal this information hampers him at the start of his investigation as he is treated with grave suspicion, as the only newcomer to the area before the first murder occurs. As the body count rose, I was completely baffled as to why Kindaichi still thought that revealing his mission would endanger the lives of the women he was supposed to protect, since clearly by not telling anyone, he had not saved anyone either. You could argue that his silence might have aided the guilty party.
Repeatedly the narrative tells us after one of Kindaichi’s actions or decisions that he was going to have regretted doing this later and he does make some serious mistakes. I would say at times he makes Had-I-But-Known heroines look competent! Having not read The Honjin Murders, I am unsure whether Kindaichi is consistently this fallible.
Reflecting on the ending of the mystery as a whole I think there is perhaps some logic and reasoning behind the author’s decision to not have Kindaichi reveal his mission openly until the end, but for the character this action does not make a lot of sense. I managed to spot a red herring solution, but the correct answer was not one you can get a hold of properly. It is a solution which is attached to an extensive backstory which is given at the 11th hour, alongside some very creative thinking on Kindaichi’s part. The explanation of the crime also includes conversations which take place with witnesses off the page. This arguably might have been to cut down on the page count, but I think there were earlier passages which could have been excised in order for these dialogues to be included.
This is a shame as the crime has a wonderfully unusual motivation and there is a surprisingly powerful moment of emotional poignancy at the end. I think it gives the denouement an ironic twist and reminded me of the work of Francis Iles and Henry Wade.
Despite having some issues with the construction of the mystery I did enjoy this mystery which had Japanese culture and history firmly and engagingly woven within it.
Source: Review Copy (Pushkin Vertigo via Netgalley)