My thanks to Pushkin Press and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.

Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo, first published in 1971 is the fourth of Yokomizo’s mysteries to be published in translation by Pushkin Press under their Pushkin Vertigo imprint, from the series featuring his detective Kindaichi Kosuke, which has 77 books. The translator for this volume is UK-born and Japan-based Louise Heal Kawai, who also translated another book I read earlier in the year, The Cat Who Saved Books.

Set in Japan just after the Second World War, Death on Gokumon Island, opens (as did The Village of Eight Graves which I read last year) with a prologue introducing its setting (not sure if this is a device common to all of Yokomizo’s books). The fictional Gokumon Island or Gokumon-to, translating to ‘Hell’s Gate Island’ is a small island in the Seto inland sea, and was inhabited first by pirates and then convicts, making its people descendants of both, and very different from those on mainland—a closed community of fisherfolk, that looks suspiciously at outsiders and whose ways and lives are very different.

It is to Gokumon Island that detective Kindaichi Kosuke, recently demobbed, travels, bearing news of the death of one of his war-time comrades, Chimata-san, who belonged to the most powerful of the island’s families—the Kitos. As he arrives with a letter of introduction addressed to the Priest, Mayor and Doctor, his entry to the village is easier, and he is welcomed and given place to stay at the Senkoji temple. But we soon learn that Kindaichi’s purpose in visiting the island was not merely to deliver news of his old friend’s death. Chimata-san had in fact asked Kindaichi to go to Gokumon and save his three stepsisters whom he believed would be killed once he is dead. While Chimata-san belonged to the main Kito family, there is also a branch family with which the main family have been at odds, and which stands to gain by any death in the main family. After Chimata, his cousin Hitoshi (also from the ‘main’ family) is to be heir, but he too, is away serving in the war in Burma. Others in the family are Chimata-san’s father, suffering mental illness and kept locked away within the home, his three step sisters—in their teens—Tsukio, Yukie, and Hanako, Hitoshi’s sister Sanae who has been running the fishing business while the men are at war, and Okatsu, former mistress of Chimata-san’s grandfather. The branch family consists of Gihei-san, his wife Oshisho, and a handsome former soldier Ukai-san with whom all three of Chimata-san’s sisters seem to flirt.  As Kindaichi tries to get to know the village and make sense of its social structure, the first murder occurs—and in a rather gruesome manner. Chimata-san’s apprehensions seem to be coming true, but can Kindaichi find the culprit?

While this is a slower paced (particularly at the start) and not-very action packed read, it is also one steeped in place and culture, with an engrossing mystery at its centre the solution to which I didn’t see coming at all, and which I found quite a treat to read.

Being set in the period just after the Second World War, the book gives one a good feel of the period. We have soldiers being demobbed, families listening to the radio each evening, keenly awaiting repatriation news, people finding themselves not having progressed in their work (like Kindaichi’s old friend Inspector Isokawa who remains an Inspector), remains of airbases and wartime infrastructure, now fallen into disuse, and underwater mines still going off from time to time. Then there is also the prevalence of Western clothing with only priests, and strong, stubborn people still adopting traditional dress. But it isn’t just the post-war feel, we are also very much in culture rich Japan with its customs and observances, Noh plays, festivals, traditional fabrics and pottery, even mythical figures like the tengu. (But that said, the fact that some of the conversation sounded very casual as against the usual formality of language one associates with Japan, felt a bit surprising, and I wondered if this was the case in the original books.) I also really loved that Yoshimizo incorporated popular culture into the book as well—films and songs of the time, books, and so on.

In terms of its fictional setting too, the book gave us an interesting look into an isolated, insular fishing community, rather suspicious of outsiders. There are some independent fisherfolk, but most work for one of the ‘boss’ families, responsible for their welfare and growing the business, and with whom they share a more or less feudal relationship. The priest and temple are of greatest importance, the priest perhaps the most influential among the fisherfolk who operate on absolute faith, there only being ‘half an inch of plank between them and a watery grave’.  

Haiku is also something we see a lot of in the book, and which has a part to play in the plot as well, though I won’t say what for that will be a spoiler. But we do get glimpses of the haiku of the master, Basho Matsuo and his disciple Takarai Kikaku, and the priest Ryonen is given to quoting haiku much of the time, with even macabre seeming choices at some moments. I also enjoyed the mention of Zappai poetry which was a form new to me, and which one of the characters prefers to write.

There are some aspects that the modern reader may find problematic, like the assumption that since Gokumon was an island of priests and convicts, its people are strange, crazy even. Then there is also Chimata-san’s mentally ill father being kept in a caged space (though it is airy, clean and large). Interestingly while the priest speaks of not wanting to ‘scare’ the women with the news of the murder, one woman indeed acting in a stereotypical, hysterical manner, and Chimada-san’s sisters being compared to the gorgons at one point, we also have Sanae-san, who is running the family’s fishing business on her own when the men are away at war, and womenfolk on the island being the ones who tend the fields for fishermen would never pick up a hoe.

Having only read The Village of Eight Graves before this book, I was also pleased at getting to really ‘meet’ Kindaichi and see him in action, as Eight Graves had him mostly on the sidelines and solving the case ‘off the page’. He makes for an interesting character dressed in (unusual for the time) traditional Japanese clothing with a crumpled felt hat on his head; ordinary, almost undistinguished to look at, of slight build and dark complexion but a thick ‘nest’ of hair on his head.  He has a bit of a stammer and is not the smooth operating detective, and though he is bright, the puzzle of Gokumon is a formidable one even for him, and one where he makes mistakes aplenty as well.   

These aspects aside, the story is essentially a mystery, and a rather complex one at that. Initially I was just watching events unfold as Kindaichi explored the village and talked to its people, and then the murders began to occur with no real clue as to who the possible culprit might be. There were what seemed like clues (and which were those, but differently than I interpreted), and at one point past the 60 per cent mark, I was sure I’d picked up a strong hint and worked out the solution, but boy, was I wrong. When the actual solution was revealed, it was complex, convoluted and one that took me completely by surprise—I never would have worked it out at all. But I could see in some characters and the complexities of relationships and influences, where the Agatha Christie inspiration might lie.

A slow moving, but still very good read.

Find an interview with Louise Heal Kawai on Books and Bao here

(copy reviewed: Kindle ARC; Pushkin Vertigo, 2022; release date 5 July 2022)

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

  1. I’ll be reading this soon, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. The setting sounds interesting and I’m pleased to hear we see more of Kindaichi than we did in The Village of Eight Graves! I can also recommend The Honjin Murders, the only other book in this series I’ve read.

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    1. Hope you enjoy it too; yes, in Eight Graves we hardly get to see him even though the story itself is good fun. I do mean to pick up Honjin Murders and I think Inugami Curse is also available in translation.

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  2. I quite enjoyed The Honjin Murders, but it fell into the locked-room category of mystery, which is not a sub-genre I’m very fond of. Is this one a locked-room one too, or is it a more general style?

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  3. I know you read a lot of mysteries, Mallika, so the fact that you didn’t get this says a lot. Wonderful review, as usual.

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  4. Goodness, 77 books! Kindaichi Kosuke could be the Japanese equivalent of Maigret given the prolific nature of his creator… Funnily enough, I’ve been thinking about giving Seishi Yokomizo a go for quite a while, ever since Pushkin started reissuing his work. Is there one in particular you would recommend as the best one to try?

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    1. I thought of Maigret too!

      I’ve only read two of the four available in translation so far–The Village of Eight Graves and this one. Both are enjoyable in their own way, each very different from the other. Eight Graves feels a bit like a soap opera in that it has the mystery, a curse, ghosts, family secrets, romance, a hidden treasure–you name it, but great fun all the same. Also Kindaichi remains in the background for the most part and we are following a young man who is at the centre of things; Gokumun is more traditional mystery, with Kindaichi present right from the start, and us getting to know him a bit.

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