Trigger warning for brief sexual violence.
It’s always a gamble when you read a twentieth-century mystery that a publisher has rescued from obscurity. I’m not sure what the odds are, but there’s a chance that the book was allowed to languish for a reason rather than tastes have changed. Pushkin Vertigo has been republishing the work of Seishi Yokomizo, who created detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Depending on which list you consult, The Village of Eight Graves is the third, first, or fourth book in the Kindaichi series. It’s also a curious choice for Pushkin Vertigo because the detective doesn’t appear on stage very much. Instead, this installment is narrated by an unfortunate man who gets involved in a conspiracy that is (seemingly coincidentally) being investigated by Kindaichi. Because our narrator, Tatsuya, and Kindaichi don’t have many reasons to spend time in each other’s company, Tatsuya isn’t a good vehicle to show us Kindaichi’s brilliance most of the time. He is, however, perfectly placed to show us a very strange village and an even stranger family.
The first hurdle to reading The Village of Eight Graves is the prologue. In this prologue we learn that the village has witnessed two scenes of mass murder, one of which gave the remote village its name. These mass murders were perpetrated by members of the Tajimi family. One instance might be excused, but two argues that there is something sinister in the Tajimi family. So when a possible heir to the Tajimi family shows up in the first chapter in the form of our narrator, everyone eyes him sideways when he comes to the village. Tatsuya is the son of a woman abused by the perpetrator of the second mass murder, who may be his father. When he gets the news that he might be a possible heir to the Tajimi fortune, he is tempted to go back to the village What really gets him there is when his grandfather is poisoned right in front of him. Tatsuya knows that the only way out through the mystery and the possible inheritance is to figure out what’s going on.
The mystery elements of The Village of Eight Graves are wild, intriguing—and I really wish that Tatsuya had a better perspective on those parts of the story. He has a ringside seat to a series of poisonings and accusations about who the murderer might be and we learn plenty about what’s going on that way. (Readers who are smarter than I am might be able to figure out whodunnit before Tatsuya and I did.) Unfortunately—at least for me and modern readers—Tatsuya and the misogyny in the narrative were so prominent in this book that I had a hard time finishing it. The attitudes about gender in this book have not aged nearly as well as the fiendish mystery. The women in this novel are either emotionally or physically fragile, scheming and old, or femmes fatales with more than their fair share of wiles. I was disgusted by the way that women are dismissed or demonized, not just by the narrator but by every character (even the female ones).
I know I missed a lot in The Village of Eight Graves, in spite of the excellent, albeit very British flavored, translation by Bryan Karetnyk. I know that mid-twentieth century Japanese fiction owes a few things to Western Golden Age mysteries, but it’s still very much a new field for me. This blog post from My Japanese Bookshelf helped explain some of those things. I wish I had found it first. That said, I doubt anything could’ve helped me weather the repellent attitudes towards women on display here. I rolled the dice on this one because I was intrigued by the idea of a mystery in Japan but, sadly, I lost this one.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.