Source: Review copy
Publication: 6th February 2020 from Pushkin Press
A fiendish classic murder mystery, from one of Japan’s greatest crime writers
In 1940s Japan, the wealthy head of the Inugami Clan dies, and his family eagerly await the reading of the will. But no sooner are its strange details revealed than a series of bizarre, gruesome murders begins. Detective Kindaichi must unravel the clan’s terrible secrets of forbidden liaisons, monstrous cruelty, and hidden identities to find the murderer, and lift the curse wreaking its bloody revenge on the Inugamis.
I approached this book with no idea at all of what I would find inside. So it was a real pleasure to find that this detective is a lot of fun. Not in the sense of the crimes he has to deal with. They are dark and quite gory as well as somewhat inventive, but the character of Kosuke Kindaichi is quite something.
Kindaichi deduces like Poirot; dresses in an Inverness Cape like Sherlock Holmes and isn’t in the least worried about how ridiculous he looks when he’s solving a case; hair standing on end as he vigorously rubs his head while he’s deducing – not unlike Columbo. (Though, of course, he pre-dates that detective by two decades.)
The Inugami Curse takes place in post-war Japan. Soldiers are returning home and Japan is changing. Not changing so much though that patriarchy is no longer dominant. As the book opens an old man is dying in his house on the shores of Lake Nasu. Sahei Inugami has made his fortune from silk and at his bedside his family sit, not so much grieving as poised like vultures, waiting to find out who he will name as his beneficiaries.
The family’s lawyer makes it clear that there is a will but that Sahei has stipulated it is not to be read until his grandson Kiyo returns from the war. If for any reason he does not come home, the will may be read one year after Sahei’s death.
Detective Kosuke Kindaichi learns of this after he receives a letter from the same lawyer asking him to come urgently to Nasu; a letter which refers to ‘blood soaked events’ in a deeply dramatic fashion. Intrigued, Kindaichi travels to Nasu to meet with the lawyer just as we learn that Kiyo Inugami, Seishi’s grandson, has finally been located and will be returning home, meaning that the will can now be read.
So far, so Christie. But here the level of melodrama ramps up several volts as we are then treated to a series of increasingly bizarre and gruesome murders. As Kindaichi looks deeper into this family he learns that there are secrets upon secrets, going back years and giving rise to the levels of hatred and venom which are now manifesting themselves in the family’s interactions.
At the centre of this are two people: Tamayoto, a woman who is not a blood relative and Kiyo, the elder grandson. Tamayoto stands to benefit from the will if she marries one of the three bastard sons of Sahei – or inherit if they die first. Kiyo is surrounded in mystery. He has come back from the war via Burma, but so badly disfigured that he wears a rubber face mask shaped to look like his previously distinguished features.
Yokomizo throws a lot into this sometimes very showy and dramatic plot which has such strong Gothic overtones that they feel ever so slightly over the top, making this more a fun read than a scary one. Red herrings abound and the author has a tendency to write somewhat cheesy cliffhangers at the end of his chapters, making the reader want to sing EastEnders like doof, doof, doofs as the chapters conclude.
The Inugami Curse has a large cast of characters and relies on their inter-connected nature rather than character development, but I was impressed by the interesting sexual mores of the plot which seems curiously ahead of its time. Yokomizo also has a great sense of humour, which tends to come out in his descriptions of Kindaichi. There’s a description of a skiing scene that made me laugh out loud.
Verdict: A gory tale of family greed, honour, revenge and loyalty with plenty of red herrings. Full of action and with a detective like no other, The Inugami Curse is much more fun than I expected and with a satisfying mystery. I’ll certainly read others with this character.
Seishi Yokomizo (1902-81) was one of Japan’s most famous and best-loved mystery writers. He was born in Kobe and spent his childhood reading detective stories, before beginning to write stories of his own, the first of which was published in 1921. He went on to become an extremely prolific and popular author, best known for his Kosuke Kindaichi series, which ran to 77 books, many of which were adapted for stage and television in Japan. The Honjin Murders is the first Kosuke Kindaichi story, and regarded as one of Japan’s great mystery novels. It won the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948 but has never been translated into English, until now.