It’s a classic setup: a powerful and wealthy businessman has died, and his family and retainers gather at his imposing and isolated villa for the reading of his will. Knowing the will has some very peculiar stipulations and familiar with the strained family tensions, the man’s lawyers, call in sight unseen a highly recommended private investigator to ward off potential bloodshed. But in an atmosphere primed for murder, the inevitable happens, and the unorthodox PI soon finds himself trying to solve seemingly impossible killings committed by a culprit who will strike again. It’s the sort of plot that was catnip for writers from the Golden Age of mystery publishing, Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, among them. Add to that list of golden age writers Seishi Yokomizo. Born in 1902, Yokomizo was hugely influenced by Golden Age authors and other classic writers such as Doyle and Poe, inspiring him to write his own locked room and private investigator-type mysteries, with over seventy cases featuring the scruffy detective Kosuke Kimdaichi. Long revered in Japan and published in the millions there, Yokomizo’s works have been largely ignored by English language publishers until relatively recently. Pushkin Vertigo, an imprint focused on international crime in translation, has recently published the first two Kimdaichi mysteries, The Honjin Murders, originally published in 1946, and 1950’s The Inugami Curse.
In The Inugami Curse, the deceased Sahei Inugami is revered in his region as a benefactor businessman, but his three daughters by three different mistresses see a large inheritance and power for Inugami’s grandsons as just payment for their own miserable childhoods. But Inugami’s tangled relationships don’t end with his death, as his will reveals. The entirety of his fortune hinges on the sole descendent of Sahei’s dearest friend, the beautiful and seemingly innocent Tamayo, and it’s only through her that the Inugami clan can hold onto the Inugami wealth. But with the deadline approaching to fulfill the stipulations of Sahei’s will and an added wild card of not one but two mysteriously masked figures, and Kimdaichi is soon investigating murders that are increasingly horrible in their execution, and that betray a close connection to the family.
Yokomizo’s plotting is so tightly done that writing a brief of the story runs the risk of giving too much away, and his relatively short chapters keep the action barreling along. Yokomizo certainly knew how to write a cliffhanger to his chapters, and his twists would do Christie proud. The style verges into that 1930s and 40s style of pulp—there’s a very present narrator who opines on the characters and engages in some heavy foreshadowing—and the indulgence of some overripe description in the bloody scenes recalls the earlier era for either good or bad. Modern mores do not quite square with the way some aspects of life in immediate postwar Japan, and some of the language—particularly the way a war veteran’s war wounds are depicted—could sound insensitive to modern readers. But overlooking the dated bits that come with republishing stories after nearly eight decades, Yokomizo’s novel, like the other enduring greats of the Golden Age, gets to the core questions that mystery fiction is best apt to explore: what is justice, and what do we owe one another? Yokomizo, who died in 1981, proves that the Golden Age of mystery writers extended far beyond the shores of Britain and America; who knows what other gems English readers may be missing? Recommended for fans of early and mid-twentieth century crime, especially those on the pulpier side, and general readers of mysteries in translation.