#876: The Village of Eight Graves (1951) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans. Bryan Karetnyk 2021]

Village of Eight Graves

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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.

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See also

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.

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Seishi Yokomizo reviews on The Invisible Event:

The Honjin Murders (1946) [trans. Louise Heal Kawai]
The Inugami Curse (1951) [trans. Yumiko Yamazaki]
The Village of Eight Graves (1951) [trans. Bryan Karetnyk]

21 thoughts on “#876: The Village of Eight Graves (1951) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans. Bryan Karetnyk 2021]

  1. I am disappointed to see that you were a little underwhelmed by this given I had hopes (foolish ones, certainly) that I would get to this on my TBR pile at some point in the not too distant future. At this point I may do The Inugami Clan instead.

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  2. In my experience the real value of this book, even if you didn’t enjoy it, is the influence it’s had on the broader Japanese mystery field. It’s been a great treat spotting the references to it the further I delve!

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    • I can understand Honjin Murders or The Inugami Curse being influential, as well as the overall influence Yokomizo has had, but Eight Graves surprises me in that regard. It’s fun, light, easy to read, doesn’t require too much concentration, and doesn’t feel like it does much new with extant mystery forms (this is 1951, after all — 60 years earlier this might have been more innovative, but not post-WW2).

      It feels like a minor title in the oeuvre of a major writer, like Carr’s Seeing is Believing or Christie’s Dumb Witness. So I guess my point is: huh, who’d’ve thought?

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  3. The book itself and the 1977 film adaptation have become such a big part of the image of Japanese mystery in popular culture, but I agree that it’s a bit underwhelming as a detective story: the setting and the creepy backstory etc. are what makes this memorable, but if you like the idea of the isolated community for example, Gokumon island offers that too, but with a more interesting mystery plot.

    Now I think about it, it’s crazy that the village massacre is actually based on a real-life event (the Tsuyama massacre), but that most people will be more aware of the fictional adaptation of it rather than the actual tragedy.

    As for the book selection, up until now the books chosen were definitely not surprising, these titles are all the best known by Yokomizo, also adaptated very regularly for television etc. After Gokumon Island, there are probably about three others that have the same level of fame and likely candidates.

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    • It’s always fascinating seeing the discrepancies between the most well received written works of an author and their popularity in adaptation. I was surprised to find after reading Seicho Matsumoto’s ‘Castle of Sand/Inspector Imanishi Investigates’, for example, that it has seven or so screen adaptations, when it was a bit of a meandering slow burn novel.

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      • You wouldn’t like the 1974 film adaptation then (which, incidentally, has the same director as the 1977 film adaptation of The Village of Eight Graves; perhaps it’s a pattern): the film is over two hours long, and half of that is just focused on telling the dramatic backstory of the murderer, showing in detail why they went so far as to commit the murder ^_~

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        • Honestly I’d be fascinated in that – I really liked the novel I just found it very hard to recommend to others because of its pace and direction. I might see if I can track that adaptation down.

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    • It’s times like this that one appreciates the introductions included in Locked Room International titles putting older works into an appropriate context. Pushkin are to be applauded for the Yokomizo translations they’ve committed to — and I really do hope we get more and more and more of them — but, man, a little intro at the beginning would be amazing, so that we’d have some context or framing for what we’ve read.

      Ah, well, at least those of us in this little community have Ho-Ling and others to keep us informed 🙂

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  4. If you don’t know what to expect, The Village of the Eight Graves is underwhelming at best and disappointing at worst. It’s so different from the previous two Kosuke Kindaichi novels and pretty much every other Japanese detective novel translated into English over the past seven or eight years. So you shouldn’t go into the story expecting a shin honkaku style detective story, but a turn-of-the-century style suspense/thriller like The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can’t recommend as a starting point to readers who are new to either Yokomizo or the Japanese detective genre, but neither is it to be avoided. It’s just a little different.

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    • Yeah, I completely agree — most other translations of honkaku and shin honkaku feel more focussed than this, but that doesn’t make this a bad book. Indeed, given the more sedate pacing and spacing of events, this might go down quite well with Keigo Higashino fans who aren’t such puzzle and pacing nuts but still like things to be connected and part of an overall whole.

      Hell, Aidan’s a KH fan, I believe, so he’ll probably love this and think we’re off our rockers for being less than effusive in our praise 🙂

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  5. This raises interesting questions about an author’s breadth of work and style. Suppose that we were translating the works of Christie or Carr from their original language, would we only focus on the classic puzzle plots or should we attempt to showcase the different types of stories each author wrote? Do you choose The Secret Adversary as one of the first stories to translate simply because it shows Christie as a thriller writer alongside her detective novels? Food for thought.

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    • It also raises the issue of subjectivity in how “good” a book is — someone, several someones, out there will love this, just as other people love Carr’s The Curse of the Bronze Lamp or Christie’s Death on the Nile.

      Styles are easier, aren’t they? Some dense detection, something more chase-y, something with a hint of the supernatural, some Bright Young Things gallivanting about…much more sensible to offer up something different rather than always going for the hits. Hell, this approach has worked wonders for the British Library range.

      I’m just intrigued to learn that this is such a highly regarded title in Yokomizo’s output, because I would have assumed it was picked precisely because it was a different style of story. I sincerely hope these reprints continue for a few more years yet, because I want to see what other idioms Yokomizo dabbled in. I won’t like them all, but they’ll be fasinating reading…

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  6. You just had to sneak in another dig at Nile, didn’t you? Well, I’m going to ignore you (what else is new?) and listen to TomCat, whose words above have done something to alleviate the disappointment I’ve been feeling as one negative review after another gets posted about this book. The same thing happened to me with Murder in the Crooked House, which now resides near the bottom of my TBR pile because of all the hate it received. I clearly have to become a stronger person!

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    • Who hated on Murder in the Crooked House? And why? Sure, the book is different and smaller in scope than The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, but a genuine shin honkaku novel with a grand locked room mystery to match. So there’s no reason to save it at the bottom of your wishlist as barrel scrapings.

      …and listen to TomCat

      Listening to me is the next best thing to making up your own mind! 🙂

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  7. Excellent review. I wanted more Kosuke Kindaichi who, here plays a fairly small role. There is a lot of good writing/translating here but the story isn’t as compelling as The Honjin Murders as The Inugami Curse where Kosuke Kindaichi is central. Oh, and Perhaps it’s my age but “all sixes and sevens” and “dribs and drabs” didn’t register with me. I really appreciate Puskin publishing these translation and I look forward to more. Props to you for using ROT13 which I haven’t seen in a long time.

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    • I was expecting everything to be woven into a much tighter design, given what we’d already seen in Honjin and Inugami, and so I think the story struck me as compelling…until about halfway through, when it started to just seem slow and on the way to being resolved almost arbitrarily. A shame, because the history is fascinating and the characters and setting well-handled (the twin in particular).

      I may be over-thinking idioms like this, on account of trying to decide which were usable in my own book (I spent an afternoon mulling “following suit” before discarding it — agony!). I can absolutely believe that these were close equivalents to what was used in the original Japanese, but they still just jabbed out at me. However, I’ll talke the blame for that 🙂

      As for rot13 — well, you’d love Nick’s blog (which also has many other fine aspects to compel it, I must add…). It was Nick who introduced the rest of us to it — and, boy, what an innovation it’s been…!

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