19481’s Death on Gokumon Island is the second volume in Seishi Yokomizo’s Detective Kosuke Kindaichi series. The 2022 English edition was translated by Louise Heal Kawai.
Like many Japanese men, eccentric detective Kindaichi spent 1937 to 1945 serving in the Japanese army. A lucky survivor, he was repatriated back to Japan. Kindaichi has one final war-related task, one that brings the no longer young man to ill-omened Gokumon (Hell’s Gate) Island.
In earlier years Gokumon was sometimes a haven for local pirates, sometimes an place of exile or imprisonment for exiles and political prisoners. It was shunned by the inhabitants of neighboring islands. As a consequence, Gokumon islanders are notably insular, even surlier and more ignorant than other rustics. Not a tourist spot. But duty compels Kindaichi to visit.
Even backwater islands have their notable families. For Gokumon, that family is the Kito clan. While clan leader Kaemon Kito was too old for military service, his grandson Chimata and Chimata’s cousin Hitoshi were drafted into the war. Since Kaemon’s son Yosamatsu is hopelessly mad, Chimata and Hitoshi were the old man’s principal heirs. Patriarch Kaemon died mid-war. Hitoshi is believed to have died in the war; Chimata survived, only to die on the ship transporting Chimata and his wartime friend Kindaichi back to Japan.
Believing that his sisters had been targeted for murder, the dying man pled with Kindaichi to return to Gokumon in his place. Both duty and lack of anything better to do sends the detective to Hell’s Gate.
Kindaichi finds the sisters and delivers the doleful news that Chimata has perished. But it is too late. Soon after the detective meets his friend’s relatives, Chimata’s sister Hanako is murdered, strangled and hung upside down from a tree branch like a grim ornament.
The murders will not stop with Hanako.
Who is targeting the sisters? Kindaichi is determined to find out. And not merely because it is his duty to Chimata — it is his calling.
The local policeman Shimazu would also like to catch the killer. Shimazu is sure he knows who the killer must be: the man whose arrival preceded the deaths… eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi.
I read this book because I was curious to see how the author would handle the matter of World War Two in a novel set immediately after the war. Would the author simply politely omit to mention the unpleasantness?
As it happens, no. Nobody got to sit the war out. Even people able to avoid service had their lives upended2. Indeed, the events of the novel play out as they do because of the war.
I did notice that while the war is described as a stupid idea, nobody in particular seems to get blamed for starting it. Well, the novel is shaped by the war but it is not about the war. It is about a series of grotesque murders. The novel delivers on that front.
Since Chimata references Kindaichi’s prior success in the Honjin case while he pleads with the detective, it may seem a reasonable inference that he wanted Kindaichi to save the three sisters. However, a closer examination of the text reveals that Chimata never asks Kindaichi to save the sisters.
My three sisters will be murdered. But… but… I’m done for. Kindaichi-san, please… please go to Gokumon Island in my place.
This is for the best, as solving the case early enough to save the sisters3 (or just stashing the trio somewhere safe) would preclude the series of horrific and needlessly contrived murders the author has in mind. Alas, as a consequence the reader is left wondering what good the detective is. Yes, he does eventually connect the dots for the reader, but only once it is too late to matter. Oh well. I suppose if realism demands that Kindaichi be drafted, it also demands that he have off-days where detecting is concerned.
The abject failure of the detective to intervene in time aside, the novel does deliver on some mystery tropes: violent and grotesque murders, a vast cast of suspects, red herrings, convoluted family politics. This entry in the series is very much not my thing, but it could be yours.
Death on Gokumon Island is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Waterloo Region locals can order Death on Gokumon Island here (Words Worth Books).
1: The ebook’s copyright says 1971. I think I’ve run into publication date oddities with this series before.
2: Oddly, although the island is between “Okayama, Hiroshima, and Kagawa Prefectures,” a certain unpleasantness involving the second prefecture is not mentioned, although the initial stages should have been visible from Hell’s Gate.
3: I should note that the three sisters are the sort of people who get their jollies torturing their mad father, so their deaths are not as tragic as they could have been.