If ever you come back, there will be blood! Blood! So runs the anonymous note melodramatically warning 29 year-old Tatsuya Terada against returning to the isolated Village of Eight Graves, out of which he was smuggled as a toddler. However, it seems that he is the heir to the Tajimi family fortune, which in turn links him inextricably to the terrible violence that traumatised the village 26 years ago, and give many cause to see him as a bird of ill omen. Sure enough, upon his arrival at his wealthy family’s vast estate, people start to die. Quite a lot of people. People who were very much alive before Tatsuya Tajimi showed up.
I’ve often wondered how the decision to translate certain titles from an author’s catalogue are made, especially an author who wrote as much as Seishi Yokomizo. Obviously some will have a higher critical standing than others, but after you sweep away the — I’m plucking a number out of thin air here — thirty titles accepted to be inferior, you’re still left with 40 to choose from. The three titles thus far published by Pushkin Vertigo have opted for a diversity of plot styles to give a sense of Yokomizo’s range while also providing the plot complexity for which he appears to be known. The Honjin Murders (1946, tr. 2019) was based around the events of a single evening and a very compact locale, The Inugami Curse (1951, tr. 2003) looked at the intricate imbrications of a larger cast over equally packed events taking in a longer and wider scope, and now The Village of Eight Graves (1951, tr. 2021) stretches the timeline and geography even further still, a series of apparently unconnected events taking place over a few months and a spread of locations.
The one downfall of this approach is that you need to allow the book time to get into its groove. You’re arguably 100 pages from the end before it really kicks into gear, and readers hoping for the relentless pacing and stacking of events from the two earlier translations are going to be a little put out by the gentle meandering of the plot here. It’s far from a tough read — Bryan Karetnyk’s translation is smooth, a few idiomatic turns of phrase aside (“all sixes and sevens” and “dribs and drabs” being ones that stuck out to me), and the book never feels like a chore to get through on account of the good work done here. Equally, the cast is far from oversized, and everyone is introduced and either given time to cements themselves in the plot or killed off quickly enough that it doesn’t matter.
Yokomizo writes with — or Karetnyk translates, I don’t know which — a great sense of place, with the isolated village and the unusual relatives who have sought out Tatsuya for their own ends all ominously coming together very well. The simian-esque twin great aunts and their cackling laughter are a wonderful touch, since you’re never sure exactly what their agenda is (and they make a nice change from the other three women, who are all attractive and all fall in love with our protagonist immediately), and their possible involvement in the minor impossible element — figures seen in the isolated, locked annexe where Tatsuya sleeps — is about the only real overlapping of intrigue that we get. There are, too, some lovely metaphors and turns of phrase throughout…
Fearing that somebody might overhear, she had whispered this as quietly as possible, but her words seemed to explode on my eardrums.
…though it would be nice if Yokomizo could communicate fear in other ways besides a chill running down some part of Tatsuya’s body (including his legs at one point, which seemed to me entirely the wrong temperature). But, c’mon, “the tunnel had as many twists and turns as a sheep’s innards” — what’s not to love about that?!
Against this you have that the plot is really just a series of vignettes — someone is poisoned, Tatsuya is accused of being behind it, an unusual even is witnessed, repeat — and the stately pace gives you plenty of time to figure out what’s happening. And then you get to the end, get told who was responsible and why and you just go “Oh, yeah, okay”. The final section shifts focus and form, but essentially boils down to combinatorics, and then we gather to be told what’s been happening the whole time. And…there’s no clever reinvestigation of a particular event or piece of evidence, just some alarming serendipity (the list, the cave-in…) some developments that don’t quite make sense to me (ROT13 spoilers: jul qbrf n jbzna unir gur ybir yrggref fur frag gb fbzrbar ryfr?) and it all just…ends. Even the brilliant detective Kosuke Kindaichi — who’s in this like Miss Marple is in A Pocketful of Rye (1953) — isn’t exactly on top form (“It couldn’t have materialized at any other time” he tells us of a key piece of evidence in his summing up…and, yeah, it could) but I guess he can only work with what he’s given.
Having delighted in the complexity of Yokomizo’s design with the two earlier translations, I’ll confess that The Village of Eight Graves left me a little underwhelmed. The historical details — both in the prologue and in the contemporary narrative, such as doctors being bombed out of the cities and setting up rival practices in rural areas — are delightful, and if stripped away the book would be about half as good. “The criminal’s execution was so exceedingly brilliant” Tatsuya tells us at one point, and we’ll agree to disagree there, but in a corpus the size of Yokomizo’s it stands to reason a range of approaches must exist. I hope Pushkin continue to put out a couple of these every year — Death on Gokumon Island (1948) follows in June — but I’d start with one of his other translations to see the maestro in finer fettle.
John @ Countdown John’s Christie Journal: The story is related in the Had-I-But-Known style, which I am not that familiar with, but I do know that a male narrator in these cases is unusual. As a prime suspect in the case, Tatsuya is not taken into the confidence of the police or series sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi, and so we don’t see enough of the latter, which for me makes this the weakest of the three Yokomizo’s I’ve read. There are some good pieces of deduction, particularly in relation to the third murder, but these are few and far between until the final explanation is given.
Steve Steinbock in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: The story is brilliant, with an exciting climax and surprise solution. The translation, however, is so faithful to the Japanese original that the prose is often unnatural. It’s still worth reading, but I would recommend two previous books by Yokomizo: The Honjin Murders (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) and The Inugami Curse (translated by Yumiko Yamakazi).
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Admittedly, there are some very hoary, even by 1949, timeworn genre clichés at the heart of the plot replete with secret passages, coded treasure maps and a hunt for the gold with lovers meetings (past and present), murders and life-or-death chases through labyrinth of dark caverns and passages – which stretch out beneath the village. However, they were all put to good use as it made the second-half the most memorable and striking part of the whole story. Not exactly groundbreaking or particular original, but effectively utilized to tell a brooding story fraught with danger and dripping with history.
Seishi Yokomizo on The Invisible Event