Pushkin Vertigo has since 2015 been publishing translations of crime-and detective classics from all around the world, Argentina, France, Italy and Switzerland, but in recent years, they have been particular dedicated to the traditionally-styled, Japanese detective novel – starting with the 2019 translation of Soji Shimada's Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982). Since then, Pushkin Vertigo has been rapidly expanding their catalog of Japanese translations and reprints.A second, long-awaited translation from Yukito Ayatsuji, Suishakan no satsujin (The Mill House Murders, 1988), appeared last March and Futaro Yamada's Meiji dantoudai (The Meiji Guillotine Murders, 1979) is scheduled for publication in early December. Akimitsu Takagi's Noumen satsujin jiken (The Noh Mask Murder, 1949) and Seishi Yokomizo's Akuma no temari uta (The Little Sparrow Murders, 1957/59) are the first two titles announced for 2024. Curiously, those two titles will be published only a month apart, April and May, which hopefully means we'll be getting two more translation for July and December. So fingers crossed for Tsumao Awasaka's 11 mai no trump (The Eleven Cards, 1976) and Ayatsuji's Meirokan no satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders, 1988). So much to look forward to in the near future, but a few months ago, Pushkin Vertigo released their fifth translation in Seishi Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi series.
Yokomizo's Akuma ga kitarite fue o fuku (The Devil's Flute Murders, 1951/53) originally appeared as a serial in Hôseki, beginning in November 1951 and concluding in November 1953, published as a book in 1954 and 1973 – which is the copyright date given in the translation. I don't know why Pushkin Vertigo always goes with the copyright dates from the Yokomizo Boom of the '70s, because it gives the impression Yokomizo wrote historical mysteries. Yokomizo very much wrote contemporary detective novels with some taking place in the then recent past. Usually no more than a handful of years.
The Devil's Flute Murder takes place in 1947, post-war Japan, two years after the US Air Force razed central Tokyo to the ground and the consequences are ever present throughout the story. There are massive food shortages, scheduled blackouts to relieve the strained power supply, black market shenanigans everywhere and a housing crisis giving rise to shanty towns among the burned out ruins of the city. Naturally, there were enormous changes and social upheavals ("...Japan's new constitution abolished the peerage..."). So the country's nobility became a so-called "Sunset Clan," or "Sunset Class," overnight and struggled to keep from falling to ruin ("we have to sell our things just to eat"). Yokomizo, already skilled at creating atmosphere and conjuring devils, fiendishly weaved the realities of post-war Tokyo into a lavish, elaborately-plotted detective story worthy of his Golden Age contemporaries in the West.
Tsubaki family belongs to one of the most prominent, old aristocratic lines in the country and the estate of the head of the clan, Viscount Hidesuke Tsubaki, miraculously survived the firebombing. The mansion now stands, "strangely untouched," among the scorched ruins, but it survival brought its impoverished master nothing except misery. After the war, several homeless members and branches of the family moved into the Tsubaki house, but this new situation was "simply too much for the sensitive viscount's nerves" – even stranger things started to happen. Viscount Tsubaki, "a gentle, somewhat delicate and polite gentle," unexpectedly became the prime suspect in a horrendous murder-and-robbery case, known as the Tengindo Incident, which left ten employees of Ginza jewelry store dead. The three survivors and several witnesses helped to police to create a photo composite of suspect, which "triggered a flood of letters and anonymous tip-offs to police," but one very detailed anonymous letter directly implicating the Viscount. And he very much resembles the composite. Only saving his neck by unwillingly giving his alibi.
After proving his alibi, Viscount Tsubaki is released and disappears shortly thereafter. More than a month passes before his body in the woods covering Mount Kirigamine in Nagano Prefecture. Apparently, Viscount Tsubaki had gone there right after leaving his house and taken poison, but "the body had barely begun to decompose." Viscount Tsubaki, composer and flutist, created and recorded a haunting flute solo, "The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute" ("it is a melody of bitter hatred, as if it were drenched in foul blood"). That eerie flute melody becomes a prelude for several tragedies as it haunts the characters throughout the story. Several family members begin to see the dead viscount. A public sighting at the Togeki theater makes the family decide to hold a divination in order to find out if the viscount is truly alive or dead. Kosuke Kindaichi is invited to attend the raising of Viscount Tsubaki's ghost.
The divination in The Devil's Flute Murders is not the kind of séance so often found in Western detective stories in which people sit around a table, holding hands, in a darkened room. The medium in this case is a plate covered with sand and a metal cone, "just touching the sand," suspended above it to draw messages upon the surface of the sand. However, the message left in the sand is a symbol they call the devil's mark. And then they hear that terrible melody.
This is only "the first bloody act of the tragedy of the Tsubaki family" and really begins when the divination room becomes "the scene of a bloody locked-room murder."
Kimimaru Tamamushi, a former count, powerful political force in the shadows and head of his branch of the family, is found dead inside the divination room with obvious signs of a struggle ("two or three wounds on the back of his head before a massive, final blow") and murderous intent (“on top of that, he was strangled with his own scarf”), but the door and windows were all locked and barred from the inside – only opening being a ranma, or ventilation window, above the door. The window is only six inches high. So nobody could wriggle through it. Fortunately, Kosuke Kindaichi is on hand to help Chief Inspector Todoroki. After all, the murderer must have used a trick to either escape or leave behind a locked room, but the story shifts gears shortly after the murder.
Ho-Ling Wong reviewed The Devil's Flute Murders all the way back in 2010 and commented that the story is divided in three parts with the opening and closing parts taking place in post-war Tokyo, but the middle portion brings Kindaichi to Hyogo Prefecture. Ho-Ling liked the excursion to Hyogo more than the Tokyo parts, because Yokomizo got showcase his gift for creating atmosphere and depicting the difference between rural and urban post-war Japan. I think some of the regional charm and flavor got lost in translation, where the local dialects are concerned, but Kindaichi acts as a pleasantly active and involved detective (while constantly scratching and tugging at his wild mop of hair). Kindaichi heads towards Hyogo to go over the viscount's alibi for the Tengindo Incident, but pretty soon he's trying to track down and identify people from the family's past. There's always the ever-present problem of motive, "whoever the murderer might be, the motive for all this is nothing as simple as money," buried deep in the messy, tangled web of family affairs and guarded secrets of the various branches. So, purely as a detective story, it remains engaging throughout and rarely drags in its 350 some pages. Just an odd turn to go from a locked room mystery evoking the supernatural to a Christopher Bush-style detective story tracking down alibis and questionable identities.
Yokomizo has been called the John Dickson Carr of Japan. You're always on treacherous grounds when comparing a mystery writer to one of the genre's greats, but anyone who debuts with an impossible crime novel like Honjin satsujin jiken (The Honjin Murders, 1946) has earned that comparison. Having now read five Kosuke Kindaichi novels, Yokomizo's locked rooms and impossible crimes feel closer in spirit to Hake Talbot than Carr. The opening and closing parts of The Devil's Flute Murders, concerning the impossible murder and its solution, is a perfect example with a dead man rising from the grave and an eerie séance – recalling the fantastic opening of Talbot's Rim of the Pit. Even the locked room-trick is more in line with Talbot and to some extend Clayton Rawson than the Chestertonian miracles of Carr. Kindaichi even warns ahead of time, "just like how every magician's trick turns out to be as simple as child's play," the explanation to the locked room murder is going to be "quite underwhelming." Not true. The locked room-trick is not the greatest the Japanese detective story has produced, but something that works well enough within the story and everything but routine or unoriginal.
But where The Devil's Flute Murders unmistakably differs from its contemporaries in the West is the driving force behind all the murders. A motive and backstory you'll never find a Western detective story from '40s or '50s. Something unsettling enough to still pack a punch today. A human tragedy presented as a detective story in which a devastating truth extracts a heavy toll on a lot of people. While the country and social order largely lays in ruin around them. I don't know what else to say about this rich and elaborate detective story except (to echo Ho-Ling) that it could have been even better and richer had it included sheet music and floor plans. Only thing you can hold against the plot is that certain key-elements have a certain quality best served in a visual medium. Such as the potentially brilliant tell-tale clue that could only be used here for a tragic after note to the case, but other than that, this run of Yokomizo translation has opened a new vein of Golden Age detective fiction for English readers and I want more Yokomizo and Kosuke Kindaichi. Much more!