Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai
Originally serialized between 1947 and 1948, then collected in 1971 as 獄門島
English translation first published in 2022
Kosuke Kindaichi #2
Preceded by The Honjin Murders
Kosuke Kindaichi arrives on the remote Gokumon Island bearing tragic news – the son of one of the island’s most important families has died, on a troop transport ship bringing him back home after the Second World War. But Kindaichi has not come merely as a messenger – with his last words, the dying man warned that his three step-sisters’ lives would now be in danger. The scruffy detective is determined to get to the bottom of this mysterious prophesy, and to protect the three women if he can.
As Kosuke Kindaichi attempts to unravel the island’s secrets, a series of gruesome murders begins. He investigates, but soon finds himself in mortal danger from both the unknown killer and the clannish locals, who resent this outsider meddling in their affairs.
Before I share some thoughts on this book, I probably need to acknowledge that I have not been posting here much lately. This past weekend was the fifth anniversary of Mysteries Ahoy! and normally I would have marked that with a post but my life has been unusually busy of late, leaving me little time to read or write. One of the reasons for that is that I am starting a new adventure, taking on postgraduate study. I’ll be balancing that alongside full-time work and family commitments so blogging will be on a “when I find the time” basis for a while, particularly once my classes begin in the New Year.
So the plan going forward is not to have any kind of formal blogging hiatus but to acknowledge that posting (and responses to comments, emails, etc.) will likely be more sporadic than I would like. I would also like to put on record though how much I appreciate your engagement with my posts – particularly when you share your own thoughts on those titles I am writing about or your recommendations for further reading. It makes this my favorite hobby by quite some way and I hope to be able to continue to do it in the year to come.
With that being said, let’s talk about Death on Gokumon Island. Having enjoyed the first Kindaichi novel, The Honjin Murders, I was pretty excited when further novels from the series appeared in translation in the Pushkin Vertigo range. As it happens though I never quite got around to actually reading them so I was pretty pleased when I realized that this, the latest translation to be published, is actually the second story in the sequence and represents the detective’s second case.
The story, often described as a homage of sorts to Christie’s And Then There Were None, takes place in the aftermath of World War II. Kindaichi is travelling to Gokumon Island, an isolated and sparsely populated island where feudal traditions remain. His public mission is to break the news to the island’s leading family that the heir has died but his true reason is to prevent some murders. In his final words the heir warned Kindaichi that with his death his three stepsisters would also be murdered.
The novel’s setting is one of the most successful elements of the story and provided much of its appeal to me. I felt that Yokomizo does a great job of conveying how the island’s isolation has affected the personality of the community and its inhabitants. One of the things he stresses is that the reason for the island’s isolation is not geography – it is in the Seto Inland Sea – but cultural. It is the island’s history, with its inhabitants being descended from pirates and convicts, that has led to its inhabitants feeling tightly bound to each other and suspicious of outsiders. Outsiders like our detective, Kindaichi.
This status as an outsider is slightly offset, at least at first, by a letter of introduction he possesses but once the murders occur it becomes a distinct barrier to his investigations. For one thing, the residents are naturally suspicious of him and his motives in remaining on the island and getting involved in trying to solve the murders. For another, he quickly decides that he cannot really trust anyone on the islands and so is reluctant to share what he knows with anyone.
This leads to one of the more frustrating aspects of this book – there is a strong sense that Kindaichi might have prevented at least one of the murders had he been more vocal about his reasons for being there. While I understand his hesitancy in declaring those reasons in public, he might have at least addressed it with those identified as potential victims. As it is, he keeps quiet and before long the killings begin.
The victims, the dead heir’s three stepsisters, are supposedly pretty obnoxious individuals though they did not make much of an impact on me. While they are clearly frivolous and do not take the death of their half-brother particularly seriously, they are not given much space in the narrative and so I didn’t have strong impressions of them as people. Rather than feeling that they get their just desserts, instead I was struck by the cruelty of the theatrical murder methods we see employed and the sense that there are some common thematic elements between this and Honjin:
ROT-13 (this spoils the motives and reveals the murderer's identity in both this and The Honjin Murders): Va obgu obbxf, gur zheqrere'f orunivbe ersyrpgf n qrrc-sryg zvfbtlal. Va Ubawva gur zheqre vf pbzzvggrq orpnhfr gur ivpgvz vf abg n ivetva nf vf fbpvnyyl rkcrpgrq juvyr urer gur qnhtugref ner xvyyrq gb erzbir gurz sebz n punva bs fhpprffvba, rafhevat gung gur rfgngrf jvyy tb gb n znyr urve. V nz irel phevbhf nobhg jurgure guvf jnf gur nhgube znxvat n fbpvny pbzzragnel nobhg znyr nggvghqrf gb jbzra, nf V vapernfvatyl fhfcrpg, be vs guvf vf fvzcyl gur nhgube frnepuvat sbe gur xvaq bs zbgvir gung zvtug yrnq gb n gevcyr zheqre. V'q or n yvggyr qvfnccbvagrq vs vg'f gur ynggre, ohg V guvax vg jbexf rvgure jnl va gur pbagrkg bs guvf abiry.
While I wasn’t struck much by the victims as characters, Yokomizo dispatches each of them with dramatic flair, crafting three distinctive and theatrical deaths. This is perhaps the way this work mostly closely resembles its inspiration, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and while I think the deaths lack the connection that would come if they had shared a common reference, it certainly leads to some very striking and disturbing imagery.
Though I would not describe any of the murders in Death On Gokumon Island as impossible crimes, the book does have some elements in common with stories in that style. There is something self-conscious in the construction of those murders with one in particularly being rather needlessly convoluted, unnecessarily elevating the risk of the killer’s discovery. I accept that as a stylistic choice and think that the book would have been diminished without it, but those who want murderers to behave credibly may be left scratching their head at the murderer’s decision-making here.
ROT-13 (Spoils aspects of murder #2): Bar bs gur guvatf V dhrel vf ubj gur xvyyre pbhyq unir xabja cevbe gb chyyvat bss gurve gevpx jvgu gur oryy gung vg jbhyq npghnyyl jbex nf vg erdhverf bar vgrz gb svg pbzsbegnoyl vafvqr nabgure. Tvira gung bar bs gubfr gjb vgrzf vfa'g cerfrag ba gur vfynaq ng gur gvzr vg vf pbaprvirq naq cerfhznoyl unfa'g orra zrnfherq, pbhyq gur xvyyre unir orra pregnva vg jbhyq svg?
If we put those practical concerns to one side however, I was generally very engaged with the puzzles on offer and enjoyed several aspects of their solutions. I, for one, have no real issues with a key aspect of the solution that has proved rather divisive with other bloggers which seems pretty fairly clued. What’s more, I really enjoyed the variety on offer in this story and I felt that this was one of the more interesting pastiches of And Then There Were None I have encountered so far (to the point that I made it a rather long way into the story before I could figure out exactly what they were).
It perhaps doesn’t quite deliver the sense that you have just read something rather clever that I got when I finished The Honjin Murders but I appreciate that this feels significantly fairer and thus makes for a more satisfying read overall.
The Verdict: An entertaining read that explores some interesting ideas and contains some striking imagery. The novel’s theatricality is both its strength and its weakness requiring the reader to accept some illogical or risky choices by both the detective and murderer, but I think the key points are clued pretty well.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number is 9781782277415.
Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.