My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
While I have read and enjoyed a fair few Japanese titles, despite all good intentions, I hadn’t gotten down to picking up any mystery title yet; this book gave me the chance to remedy that, and I enjoyed it very much indeed. The Village of Eight Graves (1950) is the third of the 77 detective novels featuring detective Kosuke Kindaichi published between 1946 and 1980 to be translated into English under the Pushkin Vertigo imprint.
The Village of Eight Graves opens with the rather cruel and horrifying legend that gives the fictional village that is our setting its unusual name; the betrayal and murder of eight samurai hiding out in the village by the villagers, for the treasure they were rumoured to be carrying, resulting in the entire village being cursed. We fast forward in time to some twenty-six or twenty-seven years before the current events when the village is subjected to another set of shocking events, a murderous spree that claimed many lives, and was attributed to that very curse.
In the present, our narrator is twenty-eight-year-old Tatsuya, brought up by his mother and later step-father who one day discovers his true antecedents (it was his father who was responsible for all those deaths twenty-seven years ago). His ‘real’ family, or rather the family of his father has been seeking him as he is the heir to the family estate with his only (half) brother being on the verge of death. Alongside, his maternal grandfather has also come to town (Kobe) in search of him. But before Tatsuya can even set out for Eight Graves, his grandfather falls down dead, poisoned. Tatsuya also receives an anonymous threatening letter warning him off returning to Eight Graves. All the same, he is escorted by Miyako Mori, a young widow who’s been living in her ancestral home in the village, and who provides him much needed support on the journey and on his first entry into the village where he finds most villagers hostile to his arrival, believing that this will only unleash another bout of terror. And indeed, it does, for his grandfather’s death is only the first of a series of senseless murders that begin to take place in the village. And in each instance Tatsuya is the prime suspect. While the police and with them Detective Kosuke Kindaichi are investigating the case, and seem to at least partly believe Tatsuya, we essentially follow Tatsuya’s narrative all through as he tries to cope with his new surroundings, get to know his new-found family, and also come to terms with the terrifying events unfolding around him.
This enjoyable mystery/adventure unfolds somewhat differently from the conventional whodunit, for our narrator Tatsuya while looking into matters is not really following the Detective Kosuke Kindaichi, except for the times they interact; and so the police and Kindaichi’s investigations we learn of are only as Tatsuya learns them, and take place for the most part, off the page. The events as we follow them are Tatsuya’s narrative of his experiences which includes not only the mysterious and seemingly senseless murders that are taking place and which place Tatsuya at the centre of accusations but also his navigating his new-found family and the village, learning his mother’s story, and his exploration of family secrets and relationships.
While Tatsuya and the police are convinced the events taking place are entirely in the human realm, events unfold in a rather creepy and unsettling atmosphere for we have the background of the village curse, the murderous rampage that Tatsuya’s father went on, the superstitions and rumours doing the rounds, and also some ill omens like lightning splitting an ancient tree. This made for a pretty eerie background for out story to play out in even though we too, know that the answer is nothing to do with any curse.
Another aspect of the background which I liked was the feel we get of Japan in this period, just after the Second World War—the position people find themselves in, the changing face of things, and also people’s struggle to make ends meet. There is also a glimpse of myth and tradition in rituals, mentions of Tengus, etc. And then there is also the remote village we find ourselves in where superstition looms large, people seem easily manipulated, and the police despite their powers can do little to reign in a mob once provoked which makes the situation for Tatsuya rather grave, fear we can feel with him.
As far as the whodunit itself was concerned, I wasn’t able to guess which of the possible suspects might have done it for there were quite a few with reason enough. With Tatsuya as our narrator, rather than us following the detective’s perspective, I was also not sure how far we were to accept his version and whether we were to look for hidden meanings or inconsistencies. But the solution was satisfactory and there were some hints to it earlier in the book as well.
There is also an adventure thread related to the legend of the Samurais’ treasure and past events which takes Tatsuya and others exploring some underground caves and tunnels which had me thinking of old Enid Blyton favourites, and which was great fun. Tatsuya’s mother’s story and his relationship with his half-sister Haruko bring in some emotional moments and alongside, there is also a thread of romance.
This was all in all a very satisfying and enjoyable read, with a nice and creepy atmosphere, interesting mystery and characters, and quite a few parallel threads to keep one reading all through.