When a wealthy businessman bestows his fortune upon a lowly member of his household to the chagrin of his rapacious offspring, you can bet your bottom dollar that some heads are going to (sometimes literally) roll. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) might be the only time this setup hasn’t resulted in a bloodbath, but The Inugami Curse (1951) by Seishi Yokomizo is from further up the scale. Old sins and their long shadows will get a good airing as stabbings, poisonings, decapitations, stranglings, and even some homicidal wordplay get a murderous field trip to remember. It is, to say the very least, memorable.
It is the last will and testament of silk magnate Sahei Inguami that transforms Tomayo Nonomiya from “a freeloader living on charity doled out by strangers” into the object of much envy and hate by giving her the controlling say in the division of the Inugami fortune. All she must do is, within three months of the will being read, marry one of Inugami’s grandsons: the forceful Také, cunning Tomo, or war-damaged Kiyo. Only if all three pre-decease her will she be freed from this condition, and, even then, further conditions on the entail might mean there’s a fourth interested party circling who would benefit most from Tamayo’s death. And then, to what should be the surprise of no-one, people start to die.
Amateur sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi has been summoned ahead of time by a concerned party, and so in on the spot when the carnage is unleashed. From both seemingly trivial incidents like a hole bored in a boat and those of huge significance — Kiyo’s return from the war is delayed, and when he does arrive he’s wearing a rubber mask and claiming to be hideously disfigured beneath it — he is able to deduce one of several plots both by and against various members of the Inugami clan…and its just a matter of waiting to see who dies next in the hope of narrowing the field. This intelligent speculation early on, considering false peril, or the apparent presentation of false information, is delightful and shows the book at its most cunning: every time you start to form a theory, Yokomizo sweeps it out from beneath you.
The difficulty with this approach — and the same was true of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) by Soji Shimada– is that it leaves an elephant in the room in the shape of the one explanation no-one mentions which, as events progress, becomes increasingly apparent as the solution. Yokomizo’s coup here is that there’s very little chance you’ll be able to work out the reasons or workings of his design, and so even when the who is all cleared up (though that, it must be said, falls into proceedings with something of a damp thud) the questions of how and why still leave plenty of ground to cover. Taken from the perspective of the solution, The Inugami Curse is a frustrating read that might well underwhelm — the late chapter title ‘A Series of Coincidences’ deserves kudos for sheer chutzpah — but as a story to rollick you along, it’s actually pretty unbeatable.
I had worried that there might be too great a reliance on the precise structure of the Inugami family tree, but thankfully that turns out not to be the case at all. Yokomizo throws one in fairly early on, by which point it’s not really that important for the reader, and I did have a moment of panic when someone was revealed as “the [offspring] of the cousin of [a character’s] grandmother” — god, it’s like those logic puzzles where you have to work out the occupation of the next-door neighbour of the bassoon-playing hamster — but we’re mercifully un-mired in such concerns. Instead you get to sit back and enjoy the bafflement of a headless body being needlessly hidden, or the puzzle of how a man can get rope-burn when the rope isn’t loose, and then be prepared to try out some pet theories of your own while the chaos plays out.
I didn’t believe a word of what unfolds, but it is honestly a huge amount of fun. The upheaval caused by the Second World War, and the shame of the Japanese nation following its defeat, form an interesting background — the quotidian shortages of household items contrasting well with the grand-scale destruction of records that allows so much of the plot here to unfurl (“Thirty years can weave strange patterns in the tapestry of fate” — you’re not wrong!). Considering, too, that this was written some 16 years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, the open and natural discussion of a relationship between two men is somewhat delightful — though the contrasting shame-filled reflections on infidelity in a heterosexual marriage feel frankly hilarious by comparison.
Yokomizo doesn’t exactly blow you away with character-work here — they’re broadly types, so when one of them attempts to rape another it’s shocking while also not too great a character reversal — but he structures the plot well, and kept me reading and aware without ever really getting me that involved. You’ll get tired of hearing about how beautiful Tamayo is (Example #217: “Her sublime beauty was indeed as endless as an ever-flowing spring, becoming more entrancing each time one saw her”) but, equally, some lovely, eldritch images emerge from what it would be fair to assume is just a piece of functional puzzle writing:
[T]he dark, turbid waters surged, frothed, and tumbled with a fiendishness different from that seen at sea. Anyone daring to peer into the depths of the lake would have quaked at seeing the eerie masses of dark weeds intertwining, tangling, and rubbing against each other like a woman’s hair.
It’s shame, then — given that we now have a good insight on how much work goes into these translations — that Yumiko Yamazaki’s translation hits a few duff notes that really should have been picked up in the proof-read on this side of the language barrier: I stopped counting how many times people stared at something “with bated breath” after the seventh occurrence, and if we’re told Tamayo was born in 1924 and is 26 at the time of the events herein then it can’t take place in the “194_” stated at the beginning. Some unusual word choices, too — c.f. Kiyo’s mask being “expressionless and eerily mum” — struck a discordant note with me…though that, if anything, can be taken as a compliment on how cleanly the overwhelming majority of this reads.
The Inugami Curse isn’t quite the timeless classic you may have anticipated after years of seeking this translation for an affordable price, but it’s a blisteringly clever, deviously multi-layered, and delightfully classical piece of murder and mayhem. On a bigger canvas than The Honjin Murders (1946), Yokomizo delivers a bracing lesson in puzzle plotting contributes much to the rising excitement those of us in the West are feeling now that these novels are finally coming through in translation. I, for one, hope that there is much more Seishi Yokomizo, and more honkaku in general, coming our way in 2021.
John @ Pretty Sinister: For once I agree with all the hyperbole on the jacket blurb. This is one Japanese detective novel that all devotees of the Golden Age ought to seek out. I would dare to call it iconic in the mystery and crime fiction of Japan.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: [A]n intricately structured, richly detailed detective story with a plot succeeding admirably in being incredibly complex and deadly simple at the same time.