読書クラブ DOES HONKAKU: Death on Gokumon Island

Westerners’ love for Japanese mysteries is gaining a lot of momentum, shown by the increasing release of new honkaku and shin honkaku titles. In terms of shin honkaku, I’m most excited to learn that The Mill House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji will be coming out next spring. The publication by Locked Room International of Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders is what got me started on this delightful journey and remains one of my favorites. But you don’t have to wait that long, my friends, for LRI will be releasing Death Within the Evil Eye, Masahiro Imamura’s sequel to the gory fun of Death Among the Undead (locked rooms + zombies = what could go wrong???) very soon. As far as classic honkaku goes, next year Pushkin Vertigo will publish another adventure of Japan’s Great Detective, Kosuke Kindaichi: Seishi Yokomizo’s The Devil’s Flute Murders

So much to look forward to – and I haven’t even scratched the surface of this year’s offerings. I still have to get to Yokomizo’s The Village of Eight Graves! I faltered there due to a plethora of reviews letting me know that it ain’t quite a whodunnit along the lines of The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. Meanwhile, I managed to wrangle my Book Club into tackling Death on Gokumon Island (1947-48), which explains the rash of recent reviews popping up in your boxes these days. This one seems to have been partly inspired – or to remind some fans of – And Then There Were None, so you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Louise Heal Kawai (who also translated The Honjin Murders) was tackling this one. I am so grateful to Heal Kawai, Ho-Ling Wong, and others for using their talents to make these wonderful titles available to us. 

Despite the order in which these novels have been translated and published, Gokumon Island is actually Kindaichi’s second recorded case. Between solving the impossible crimes associated with The Honjin Murders and his mission to Gokumon Island, our hero has served the Japanese army during World War II, and his experience has left him a changed man. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is how it functions as a post-war tale, giving us a fascinating peek into the physical and emotional damage done to a country that was once our bitter enemy but now must heal and move forward. For those of us who have steeped ourselves in classic Western mysteries that examined the changes wrought to England and America by the war – and how they inspired the clever minds of mystery writers – it’s fascinating to see the same issues explored by the “other” side.  

As the novel begins, thousands of Japanese families await news of the fates of their missing soldier boys, but Kosuke Kindaichi is headed to Gokumon Island to deliver sad news to one of these families. Although his comrade Chimata Kito had escaped death on the battlefield, he had succumbed to malaria on the returning ship. Dying in Kindaichi’s arms, he begged the detective to tell his family the news – and something more: “I . . . don’t want to die. I have to get home. My three sisters will be murdered . . . My three sisters . . . My cousin – my cousin – 

Gokumon island is a forbidding place. Its name translates to Prison Gate, or Hell’s Gate. Once a stronghold to pirates, it evolved into their prison. The rough descendants of the pirates lived a harsh, lawless existence until they started making money through fishing, a trade that has been dominated on the island by the Kito clan ruled by Kaemon, whose strength of personality has somewhat tamed the island. The make-up of the family and the villagers on this small island is complicated: you get that sense at the start from the (fortunately) provided list of characters, which is long and contains people living, dead, missing – and doomed! 

Kindaichi is thrust into this complex world even before his boat docks. Kaemon has recently died, his son Yosamatsu has gone violently mad and remains confined in a caged bedroom at home, and the power over the business is teetering between the main Kito home and the Branch family. Nobody in either family seems inclined to welcome Kindaichi with open arms, but Chimata had provided him with a letter addressed to the town elders: the pompous mayor, the beloved priest in charge of the island monastery, and the drunken doctor. Ryonen the priest provides Kindaichi with a bed and a base of operations, and the young detective begins to gather information from various inhabitants of the island, most notably a delightfully gossipy barber named Seiko. 

Kindaichi’s aim is to deliver his sad news and to protect, if possible, Chimata’s sisters. In order for us to enjoy a fine honkaku mystery, that goal must fail, and it does spectacularly, as a series of seriously creepy murders begin. To add the cherry on top, it is Kindaichi himself, the outsider, who comes under suspicion, and he is quickly arrested by the dense island Sergeant, who would fit in beautifully as a foil to any British village detective. Fortunately, help is on the way in the form of Inspector Isokawa (think Superintendent Battle), who we met in The Honjin Murders and who is about to be reunited with Kindaichi, whose skill Isokawa much respects.

Gokumon Island is a long novel, and while the bleak spookiness of the island is beautifully brought to life in Heal Kawai’s translation of Yokomizo’s text, in the early going the investigation sometimes meanders and begins to sound like a series of math problems:

And so if the distance from the branch house to the rock at Tengu’s Nose takes two minutes, that’s a round trip of four minutes. That means that from the time you examined the bell to the time you passed back by it, there was maybe a space of fourteen minutes. And you say it was now raining. About what time did the rain start? You said before that it began on your way from Tengu’s Nose to the branch family house . . . 

But in the final third, things really start to pick up. More and more of the Kito family history is unveiled, including the machinations of a mad witch. Plus, it seems like the pirate trade is still going strong, and a missing criminal is stalking the island. Is he a stranger or someone closer to the family? And the mad Yosamatsu has a tendency to escape his caged room. And the daughters keep dying under the most bizarre circumstances. And the storm keeps raging over the island! 

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 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. Never have I felt more the hybrid nature of honkaku in the application of Western mystery genre tropes to a non-Western society. (Well, maybe those dying messages in the Case Closed mysteries do the same thing!) It can add an interesting, sometimes challenging, layer to the puzzlement of Western readers, but it is never less than fascinating.

I’m looking forward to our 読書クラブ (Book Club) discussion of Death on Gokumon Island and to the wealth of new honkaku and shin honkaku tales that are coming our way. And next month, Book Club is excited to tackle what will be the fifth entry in my Re-Branding series – Christianna Brand’s much revered and finally re-released impossible crime novel, Death of Jezebel. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “読書クラブ DOES HONKAKU: Death on Gokumon Island

  1. Pingback: #987: Death on Gokumon Island (1948) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans. Louise Heal Kawai 2022] | The Invisible Event

  2. I also loved the glimpses of Japanese culture. I find that historical fiction doesn’t give nearly the same feeling of a culture being genuinely different as these books do.


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