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.
Seishi Yokomizo on The Invisible Event
The Honjin Murders (1946) [trans. Louise Heal Kawai 2019]
Death on Gokumon Island (1948) [trans. Louise Heal Kawai 2022]
The Inugami Curse (1951) [trans. Yumiko Yamazaki 2003]
The Village of Eight Graves (1951) [trans. Bryan Karetnyk 2021]
20 thoughts on “#746: The Inugami Curse, a.k.a. The Inugami Clan (1951) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans. Yumiko Yamazaki 2003]”
This was very timely as I was mulling over the reads I want to prioritize for my Japanese crime fiction challenge posts. The premise of this does sound really interesting so I look forward to checking it out soon.
Oh, god, having to narrow down choices from the current wave of Japanese crime fiction is not a task I envy you: so much of it is so damn good.
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True. The challenge is running from January to March and so I was looking at the calendar and I realized that I could do one a week and I would not be able to cover everything I want.
I expect to be revisiting The Decagon House Murders soon though with the new edition coming out and this will be on the list for sure now.
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It should be noted that the cultural influence of The Inugami Curse on Japanese pop culture is *tremendous*, similar to how Murder on the Orient Express is like a ‘go-to’ mystery when it comes to Western-oriented pop culture consciousness.
Yokomizo’s popularity in Japan become more pronounced in the late 60/early 70s, with a manga adaptation of The Village of The Eight Graves, a film adaptation of The Honjin Murders and (cheaper) paperback pocket re-releases of his book (the so-called “Yokomizo Boom”). This basically culminated with a succesful television drama series based on Kindaichi, but in particular the 1976 film adaptation of The Inugami Curse, a gorgeous work by director Kon Ichikawa and also the maiden work of Kadokawa Pictures, nowadays one of the big four film studios in Japan. It was a succes, making it part of the pop culture framework in Japan. It has seen countless of adaptations since (even a remake of the film by Ichikawa himself), and I think the most recent one was from last year? So it’s very firmly anchored in Japanese pop culture consciousness as being the *classical mystery*. So if there’s a parody on mystery fiction? You’re likely to see a pair of legs sticking out of a lake, suspicious people wearing rubber masks and perhaps even an early scene in a traditional Japanese room at the death bed of a family patriarch.
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This is amazing, thanks for the insight — stands to reason that there would be touchstones for the different cultural exposures to these ideas, but I would have never guessed the Japanese ones would stem so fully from this novel.
Recently got given this, so not reading your post just this mo, JJ! But soon, promise 😀
Phew! That gives me time to delete the terrible things I said about you in the above review, then.
Very typical of you to give this iconic detective novel only four stars! 😀
Anyway, glad you enjoyed the ride and even gladder Vertigo has made it widely available again, because the prizes for secondhand copies of the 2003 and 2007 editions were getting ridiculous. It’s a work that deserves to be on the shelf of every mystery fan right next to The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hollow Man and The Murder on the Orient Express.
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Well, I want everyone to start 2021 in as secure a place as possible. Can you imagine if I didn’t play to type? There would be uproar!
Thanks for the review. I actually love this kind of audacious solution. It’s been a while, but I remember finding the full picture really entertaining. Like the reason why the murderer would take certain baffling actions such as going through the trouble of using a boat to dispose of a body.
If you found this solution to be unbelievable, I can’t wait for your reaction to Murder in the Crooked House ;p
I’ve read Murder in the Crooked House. It was…not a book I reviewed on this blog, which might be all I’m willing to say about it.
No, look, it’s fine, but it’s also far, far more predictable on account of its central conceit, and the huge amount of time getting to the answer can be a little hard-fought at times.
Good to know. I’ve got this and Death in the House of Rain arriving next week.
Man, that’s quite a towfer!
l reviewed this back in April. April, people!! I was fortunate enough to chat with Ho-Ling about it then, and his comments on the cultural importance of the story in Japan are fascinating. I had the good fortune to find the first film online and watch. It’s quite lurid in almost a Hammer Films sort of way. (The disfigured son is REALLY ugly!!)
I do agree the journey is more interesting than the characters or the solution, but the solution ain’t bad, and it is a fascinating read from such a different culture that reveres the genre even more than Westerners seem to do. I’m finding the same issue currently with a very different honkaku read, but more about that anon.
And people have to stop bad-mouthing Murder in the Crooked House!! Every time I take it off the shelf to read it, this happens. I don’t know what to do!!
The solution is so balls-out inventive that you can’t help but admire it, even if I also can’t believe a word of it — but, as an impossible crime fan, I’m delighted to encounter all manner of unbelievable invention…there’s already plenty believable — and not very inventive — in real life, so I love my murder mysteries to play out like this.
Re: Murder in the Crooked House, maybe just read it and see what you think? A wild idea, but it worked for me an’ Crofts…
For anyone who’s interested, the first-ever English translation of Yokomizo’s The Village of Eight Graves is scheduled for publication on November 30, 2021, courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo. I was hoping for a translation of Prison Gate Island, but maybe in 2022. Until then, I’ll gladly settle for this classic Japanese mystery novel. 🙂
More like The Village of Eight Yay-ves, amiright?
This is awesome news; everyone buy two copies, then we’ll hopefully start getting these Yokomizo’s more quickly…
There is something about these translations that makes them feel so foreign, especially when it comes to the small details of interactions between the detective and the other characters, but I can’t know whether this is due to the author, the translator or genuine difference in cultures.
I recently read this one, and also a book set in Ancient Egypt but written by an American woman, and it really struck me how many historical novels create only a minor feeling of cultural distance, unlike the translated Japanese novels.
Yeah, I like how these translations manage to maintain an air of foreign-ness. Too much airbrushing of the contemporary details would wash out some of the appeal for me, and it must be a very difficult line to walk when bringing books from one culture into another.