Recently, my pal JJ asked me if The Inugami Curse, the 1951 mystery written by prolific crime writer Seishi Yokomizo and expertly translated by Yumiko Yamazaki, took place over a span of several months and, if so, was it my intention to read the damn thing in real time?
Har, har, JJ, it is to laugh.
“We’re moving to Brad’s blog now.”
But the sad truth of the matter is that it has taken me weeks and weeks and weeks to read this book. That would normally be a bad sign, and yet, while I have some reservations about this fifth exploit of eccentric sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi (which I’ll get into in a bit), it is only one of two out of seventy-seven Kindaichi novels to be translated so far into English and one of really only a handful of classic Japanese honkaku mysteries available to us. Plus, it’s eminently readable and entertaining throughout, even if some aspects kinda sorta made me want to fling the book across the room. I do think that, while I am by nature a plodding reader, this COVID-CRAP has jangled my nerves and made it even more difficult for me to merely plop down on the sofa and make mincemeat of my TBR pile. But today I finally finished, and maybe it’ll jumpstart me toward the next read. I’ve got the time to find out . . .
If anyone was meant to be a detective story writer, it was Seishi Yokomizo. Like Dashiell Hammett, he suffered from tuberculosis. Like Agatha Christie, he had pharmacological experience. In fact, he studied pharmacology in Osaka and was all prepared to take over his family’s drug store when who should he run into but Edogawa Rampo, the father of Japanese mystery fiction. Rampo encouraged Yokomizo’s love of literature, and so, instead of drug stores, he went on to become editor-in-chief of several magazines – just like Frederick “Ellery Queen” Dannay.
But Seishi wanted to write, and write he did. After a few attempts at straight novel writing, the Second World War set Yokomizo straight, and he devoted the rest of his career to the classic crime fiction mode that we now call honkaku. He modeled his style after his favorite mystery author, John Dickson Carr (although I’m not sure how many impossible crimes appear in his work.) He created a series detective, a true eccentric named Kosuke Kindaichi, who is something of a savant and who, when excited, is given to scratching his head vigorously until whoever he is with gazes at him with alarm and horror.
Kindaichi premiered in The Case of the Honjin Murder, an impossible crime novel that was recently translated by Louise Heal Kawai and published by Pushkin Vertigo as The Honjin Murders. The Inugami Clan is the book that has become something of a sensation in Japan, inspiring several films, TV series, manga adventures, even, I believe, video games. Other writers and producers around the world have incorporated Kindaichi into their work, considering him a detective on par with Holmes, Poirot, and the like. The book was first published in English in 2013, translated by Ms. Yamazaki, and it has been reissued by Pushkin Vertigo.
More good news: you can watch the 1972 movie online, directed by the equally prolific auteur, Kon Ichikawa, on DailyMotion.com. The movie is fun, quite faithful to the plot but in some ways very 70’s in terms of its music and editing style.
And that’s it for us English speakers. If you know French, you can also read The Village of Eight Graves (1951) and La Ritournelle du demon (1959) (which I’m guessing is Rhymes of a Devil’s Ball.) The point is that seventy-five potentially terrific works of honkaku by one of its masters – novels like Head of a Playing Cards Table, Girl’s Shadow Under the Door, and One Hundred Lips Song of Satan (which could be what Ritournelle du demon means, even though the publication dates don’t gibe) – are unavailable for reading and NEED TO BE TRANSLATED! May I modestly suggest that, during this pandemic crisis, some of our friends, like Louise Heal Kawai and Ho-Ling Wong, get cracking?!? But enough! – let’s talk about The Inugami Curse.
First of all, I love the utter – for lack of a better word – “Japanese-ness” of it. Those of us who have started to become familiar with honkaku crime fiction expect a deep reverence for, and adherence to, the main principals of Golden Age mystery fiction. Having this played within a culture that is, in many respects, so different from one’s own in both outward show and emotional make-up, makes for an endlessly fascinating read. The topography in the novel is different, and so is the relationship of the characters to it. The way they behave, both in general terms and specifically related to the crime is interesting, too. It’s not like people are entirely different all over. We feel lust, love, anger, hatred, revenge, fear in much the same way around the globe; we might describe and/or express these feelings differently but we can relate to other people’s feelings.
The other thing I really took to was the set-up to this convoluted tale of a family cursed to suffer and suffer and suffer multiple losses, including murder, of course, but certainly not limited to that. The short first chapter is densely packed with information about Sahei Inugami, “the so-called Silk King of Japan,” and his complicated clan. My first drafts of this post kept getting bogged down in plot details, and of course in a review like this you don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that as the novel opens, an aged Sahei lays dying in a large room in his maze-like villa, surrounded by his three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three of his four grandchildren. Also present is his beautiful young ward Tamayo (we know she’s beautiful because she is described thus every single time she appears) and his nervous lawyer, Mr. Furudate. Standing outside in wait is Tamayo’s only friend, the frighteningly childlike strongman known as “Monkey.”
The starting off point of Inugami involves Sahei’s will, which cannot be read aloud until the entire family is gathered together. This means that the vast business interests that the Inugamis own cannot be settled until Kiyo, the oldest grandson returns from the war. Thus, the family, which is so divided by rancor that the villa has been expanded upon for years so that everyone can live apart, has to wait, and wait . . . and wait for matters to be resolved. And then, Kiyo comes home, and his presence adds an aura of grotesque horror to the existing tension, because . . . . well, that’s all I’ll say.
While this is not an impossible crime novel in the nature of The Honjin Murders, much is made of the elaborate villa in which the family resides. Complex architecture is an important trademark of honkaku fiction, and I sorely wish there had been one or two floor plans of the house and grounds, even as a means of helping us trace the lengthy list of unusual and deadly events that occur here.
It is the mere threat of death that summons Kosuke Kindaichi, the youthful and eccentric private detective, to Nasu Village. Between Honjin and this novel, Kindaichi has developed a national reputation as your go-to crime solver when a case gets complicated and creepy. In one of many moments that exemplify author Yokomizo’s incorporation of the fabulous qualities of GAD crime fiction, our detective hero takes a moment to reflect on his career so far. For his fans, what follows amounts to a massive Easter egg; for the rest of us (see above, English only readers), it’s all a merciless tease:
“In his experience as a private investigator, Kindaichi had been involved in all sorts of cases, and more than a few times he had come face-to-face with ghastly corpses–the stuff that nightmares are made of. He saw a couple lying drenched in their own blood on their wedding night in The Honjin Murders case and the body of a young girl hung upside down from an old plum tree and her dead sister stuffed inside a huge temple bell in the Gokumon Island case. In the Nightwalker case, he saw the decapitated corpses of a man and a woman, while in the Yatsuhaka Village case he witnessed many people poisoned or strangled.”
I’ll be honest: the Kindaichi of this novel got on my nerves, mostly because his personality is basically reduced to a single tic: when he is stimulated by a clue, excited by a turn of events, or just plain baffled, he scratches his head. After he does this, we have to bear witness to how alarmed it makes any companion he is with. In the movie, when Kindaichi scratches, great flakes of dandruff also appear, so we get an added “gross out” factor. Aside from this “trait,” all we know about Kindaichi is that he dresses like a fool and that he is very smart, but not so smart that at least one death, maybe more, could have been avoided had he thought things through a bit more quickly.
One doesn’t expect much in the way of characterization in honkaku, but there is enough weirdness going on in this family that the scenes are interesting, both in terms of puzzlement and emotional melodrama. Without giving much more plot away, suffice it to say that Sahei’s will pushes every button that a classic mystery will should push, setting family members against each other and – just possibly – setting off a nasty murder plot. I say “just possibly” because there are many secrets to unearth before the family gathers together one last time for Kindaichi’s reveal. (Sahei’s life has been the subject of a biography, and let’s just say that the author omitted a few salient details.) Could something in the man’s past have triggered the madness to follow?
The novel chugs along at a merry pace, and after several grotesque murders and other surprises, Kindaichi solves the case. Here’s where things . . . well, they don’t fall apart exactly. I mean, there’s some kinda sorta fair deduction going on, and all is explained. I take that back: at one point, the murder, while confessing, refuses to explain a point that it would have been frankly nice to have had explained. And there are an awful lot of coincidences and moments where people don’t behave in any normal human way. (The fourth chapter from the end is called “A Series of Coincidences,” for God’s sake!)
I may quibble, but I still want a whole lot more of these to be translated. This is a fun read, probably even more fun if you read it more quickly than I did. (Suggestion: avoid tackling it during a pandemic???) I don’t think I would make it my first honkaku novel if I were you. Here’s where I would start.
And yet I enjoyed The Inugami Curse, and I will keep my fingers crossed that sometime in the near future, I will have a chance to read more of the cases of that head-scratching little so-and-so, Kosuke Kindaichi! God willing, I’ll be sitting in a cafe, basking in the company of the people around me, when I do.