Saturday, July 18, 2015

Clash of Clans

In 1940s Japan, just after the end of the Second World War, the wealthy entrepreneur Sahei Inugami dies at his villa. Don’t get your hopes up – his death was a natural one. The “Silk King of Japan”, the late Mr. Inugami lived a long and prosperous life, and his will is to be read aloud when the entire family is gathered together. The only missing member is Kiyo Inugami, a soldier and the son of Sahei’s eldest daughter, and thus the reading of the will is postponed for a few months until Kiyo returns home.

Just before the will is to be read, the famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi is summoned to the Nasu region by Toyoichiro Wakabayashi, an employee at the Furudate Law Office which drafted the late Inugami patriarch’s will. Wakabayashi’s summons is ominous—according to him, the Inugami clan will be faced with “a grave situation … events soaked in blood.” Unfortunately, before Kindaichi can get the man to elucidate just what he means by this, he drops dead from a poisoned cigarette.

Kindaichi discovers that a central figure in the Inugami household, Tamayo Nonomiya, has been the target of multiple attempts on her life. The late Sahei Inugami always favoured Tamayo because he owed a debt of gratitude to her grandfather, who rescued him from poverty. Unfortunately, his warmth towards her was never reciprocated by the rest of the Inugami clan. Tensions reach a boiling point when the will is read aloud, and it is discovered that it hinges on Tamayo and her choice of a husband. And then, the murders start in earnest…

The Inugami Clan is a 1976 novel by Seishi Yokomizo, translated into English by Yumiko Yamazaki and published in 2003. As far as I know it is the only Yokomizo novel available in English (although I also own a copy of The Village of the Eight Graves in French). It’s a real shame, because The Inugami Clan was an excellent, intriguing read which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I would love to read more by this author.

The set-up, with the dead patriarch, the controversial will, and the resentful family, is straight-up Golden Age. Even the time period, the late 1940s, fits in with this mould. And so I sharpened my deductive claws and tackled the problem posed by the author. It’s a very good and complex problem, and I managed to solve a couple of elements of it, but not the whole thing. I was intuitively suspicious of one thing from the beginning, even though these suspicions seemed ludicrous in the context of the story. My intuitions proved justified, however, and I was delighted at the way Yokomizo managed to swing this feat of trickery without resorting to the usual avenues.

As you can perhaps tell, I’m trying to avoid giving away any major plot details – discovering each layer of the plot is half the fun of the book. So please forgive the vagueness of this review. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the characters, the depiction of the time period, and the window of insight into Japanese culture that The Inugami Clan provided. I really wish more books like this were translated into English – I would love to read them.

Japanese detective novels have been among my favourite contemporary detective novels, as they have often had good puzzles and emphasized those GAD-like elements. Although The Inugami Clan is not my favourite Japanese detective novel (that honour must still go to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders), I think it’s a fine example of the genre, and I can readily recommend it.


  1. I'm trying to find as many translated Japanese mystery as possible. Thank you so much for the recommendation, Patrick. Kind regards from Malaysia.

  2. From your more recent post I gather you can read French. There are French translations of Akuma no temari uta (La ritournelle du demon) and Yatsuhaka mura (Le village aux huit tombes). Both are regarded as classics. The best Yokomizo books that don't have a western translation are the Honjin Murder Case and Gokumontou.
    Incidentally The Inugami Clan was written and published serially in 1951-2, not that long after the events it depicts.

    1. Thanks a lot for the info, Nigel. I do have a French translation of "The Village of the Eight Graves" somewhere, but I was not aware of the other one!

    2. Re: Western translations: Gokumontou has recenly been published in Spanish actually. The book is not only widely seen as Yokomizo's best novel, it's also considered the best Japanese mystery story of all time (coming in at first in both times the Tozai Mystery Best 100 ranking was held).

      The whole influential families in post-war rural communities and such is something Yokomizo did very well, and it's really "his" thing. Even now, there are few mystery novels that even try to invoke that distinct "Kindaichi" atmosphere.

      The Inugami Clan is probably also the most parodied Kindaichi work. Sukekiyo (or Kiyo in the English translation) is obviously an easy target.