“I don’t want to die. I… I… don’t want to die. I have to get home. My three sisters will be murdered. But… but… I’m done for. Kindaichi-san, please… please go to Gokumon Island in my place…” — thus is Kosuke Kindaichi exhorted by a dying brother in arms as they are demobilised after the end of the Second World War. And so the detective goes to Gokumon Island, meets Chimata Kito’s family, and tries to untangle the maelstrom of violence and confusion that descends upon the island as, sure enough, Chimata’s three sisters Tsukiyo, Yukie, and Hanako are killed one by one. In principle it’s a gripping idea, but in practice it made for me the least interesting of the four Seishi Yokomizo mysteries thus far translated.
Death on Gokumon Island (1948) is most successful in its non-mysterious elements: capturing the sense of hopelessness that greeted Japanese soldiers at the end of the war, with Kindaichi’s regiment not even fighting for the final months, instead dismissed by the enemy and marooned on New Guinea, spending “gloomy days, hanging around doing nothing” until the news of the war’s end came. Having been “forced to fight in a ridiculous war”, the men of the various islands are slowly making their way back home — the radio makes repatriation announcements nightly — and Kindaichi’s news of Chimata’s death throws the family into a mourning that echoes the despair of the nation as a whole. There are happy moments hewn from such grief — see the Kindaichi and Inspector Isokawa from The Honjin Murders (1946) meeting after ten years, each given no reason to presume that the other was alive — but a sombre mood understandably predominates.
Elsewhere, Yokomizo is clearly enjoying the expanded palette that this second novel, much longer than his debut, affords, with some wonderful descriptions that translator Louise Heal Kawai has done a magnificent job capturing for our enjoyment, be they deliberately affecting…
Dawn brought with it a thick layer of fog. It had continued to pour with rain up until the moment that day broke, but then it seemed as if the remainder of the rain had simply turned to mist and wrapped Gokumon Island in its damp folds. Senkoji Temple, sunk deeply in the dark grey fog, was blurry like a lingering dream in the eye of someone awakening from sleep.
…pleasingly sharp (“…a kimono dyed so vividly that you could almost smell the colours”) or simply delightful in their bluntness (“[He] was left feeling as exposed as a plucked chicken.”). We’ve moved on from the pure plot mechanics of The Honjin Murders, and Yokomizo is clearly enjoying playing with mood and atmosphere as well as peppering in the subtle cultural shifts that have crept in to society, fashion, and expectations in the post-war exposure to Western equivalents. The sense of an island beholden to the wealth brought to it by the wealthy Kito family and their fishing vessels — this is no And Then There Were None (1939)-style isolated rock, instead supporting a village with a population of its own — is not only well-deployed, but also ends up being important once the murders begin and the plot intrudes on what has been an otherwise enlightening historical and cultural sortie.
Because the mystery…well, the mystery is rather poor. A lot of it depends on the movements of groups of people from House A to Temple B, with much speculation about who was where when in between times, and it’s difficult not to wonder why Kindaichi makes such a secret of his reason for being there and doesn’t just warn the prospective victims — all three of them very difficult to like, by the way — of the threat that hangs over them. To keep things moving we lapse into entirely fallacious reasoning (“Whoever is wearing a boot like this one is the killer,” say, or “Now that I knew the man wasn’t [Suspect A]…the killer must be someone else” — both absolute nonsense), which becomes all the more frustrating when a key clue to explain the first killing was in the detectives’ possession and occluded from the reader until the conclusion…but all the characters act as if it’s news to them as well. It’s arguable, too, that rather too much of the information Kindaichi comes by occurs off page, so that instead we’re treated to lots of walking around an island and some promising character threads that fail to develop or really pay off.
And it’s all the more frustrating because there’s one magnificent clue that Kawai deserves tremendous credit for lugging over the language barrier — you know the one, and you know that it wasn’t just a simple switch for the Japanese word — and Yokomizo is having great fun reaching even further into the bag of meta awareness that he hinted at with the bookcase in The Honjin Murders:
Was it simply the murderer showing off? Just like some novelists, trying to find a fresh story, think up the most excessively theatrical settings, had this murderer, just on a whim, painted this ghastly spectacle out of flesh and blood?
Plus, while I really, really dislike the type of, er, arrangement that protects the identity of the killer, there’s something spectacularly Japanese and thrilling about…um, if not exactly the motive then at least the reason the motive had to be enacted as it was. It will make little sense to Western readers, perhaps, and I’ll fully admit that the poetry of it all failed to occur to me until Aidan made me realise what I’d overlooked, but given a little thought it’s all rather horrible and beautiful in the same breath. I just wish that the mystery and events which brought us to that point were more compelling, better structured, and not filled with quite so much walking and so many of the characters being forgotten, dismissed, or introduced too late to have any impact or purpose. Even the masters of the form could suffer from Difficult Second Novel Syndrome, it seems.
Yokomizo remains a fascinating prospect, however, and despite this slip I am very excited that Pushkin Vertigo are forging ahead with another translation, The Devil’s Flute Murders (1953), next year. If a ‘Yearly Yokomizo’ is the new version of a ‘Christie for Christmas’ then count me in — honkaku continues to weave its spell, even if here it’s more because the edges are so fascinating when the central pattern disappoints.
Brad @ Ah, Sweet Mystery: In the end, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Kosuke Kindaichi solves the case, and the solution is . . . well, it’s different. I did suspect one person, and while my suspicions were justified, I can take no credit for solving the multiple impossible (sic) crimes that occur here. On the one hand, I don’t think I bought the control that the killer had over this massive situation. But I have to say that I really enjoyed how – well, how Japanese the whole case was. More than once, I wished for a glossary at the end of the book to save me the time from consulting Google! The whole novel is steeped in details of Japanese culture, ranging from the spiritual to the mundane (we learn a lot about temple bells and tenugui, Japanese hand towels), and it creates a fascinating blend of the exotic and the familiar.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Yokomizo’s fiction drips with local color, culture and history in addition to creating a murder mystery that feels exclusive to the setting. The murders in Death on Gokumon Island genuinely feel like they’re indigenous to the titular island and could not have taken place anywhere else on the planet. That greatly benefited the who-and why, which under different circumstances would have come across as contrived and slightly unbelievable. But here, it worked like a charm!
Seishi Yokomizo on The Invisible Event