The novel was first serialized in magazines in 1950-1951 and then published later. A famous film by Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichigawa was made from the novel.
The novel is written and set in the period following the end of World War II.
Detective Kosuke Kindaichi is reached by a letter from a certain Wakabayashi Hoichiro who begs him to join him in Nasu (Tochigi Prefecture, Honshu Island), a small town on the lake of the same name, to investigate a hereditary succession which according to the sender could be at the basis of a feud. As soon as he arrives at the hotel, Kosuke discovers that Wakabayashi Hoichiro has been killed (it turns out he was poisoned). The event confirms the fears of the victim. Interrogated by the police, he soon becomes a valuable ally of Commissioner Tachibana who is well aware of the fame of the Japanese investigator. But why was he killed? So no one knows, but a fact is that the victim would have survived and probably would have revealed to Kosuke his fears about
It soon turns out that at the base of everything, is the struggle for the legacy of the Inugami Clan: the old Inugami Sahee died leaving three daughters Matsuko, Takeko and Umeko, whose mothers were not married by the old man, but were l object of his sexual pleasures, in short, his concubines, each housed in a different pavilion of the Western-style building. Matsuko has no husband, while the two sisters do: Takeko's Toranosuke, Umeko's Kokichi. To complicate matters, there are also the grandchildren of the old man: Sukekiyo, son of Matsuko; Suketake and Sayoko, son and daughter of Takeko and Toranosuke; Suketomo, son of Umeko. And as if that weren't enough, it will be known that Aonuma Shizuma son of Aonuma Kikuno also shares the claims, who had been the only woman loved by the old Sahee, much younger than him, forced to hide after giving birth to a child who would have been the natural heir of the old Sahee, industrial tycoon, and therefore disliked by the three aunts. The old man had given her the golden emblems of the family: an axe, a koto and a chrysanthemum. Whoever had them, would have had the right to administer the Clan's assets. But the woman, joined by the old man's three daughters, had been forced to hand over the three objects, to prevent her son from being injured or killed by the three women.
The will of which the notary Furudate is the depositary will increase the hatred and the power struggle existing within the Clan, assigning the task of settling the dispute, establishing who will inherit most of the assets , to the young Tamayo, a woman of great beauty, adopted daughter of Sahee, as granddaughter of Nonomiya Daini, a Shinto priest who had been Sahee's main benefactor when he was young, as well as being his lover. However it will be Nonomiya's successor at the Shinto temple, to learn by reading old documents he found, that she was the daughter of Moriko, daughter in turn born from the extramarital relationship between Sahee and Haruko, wife of Nonomiya Daini, and therefore granddaughter by Sahee. That's why she had had a significant part in her inheritance: essentially whoever married her among her three male grandchildren would inherit the Inugami industrial empire.
Soon the woman is stalked by the children of Takeko and Umeko, who each try for their own part, to make inroads into her heart. Then there is also Sukekiyo, who before the war was the one who had been closest to Tamayo, but since he returned, a rubber mask covered his features horribly disfigured by the explosion of a grenade, and no one nourished the little chance that a woman as beautiful as Tamayo could join a man now horribly disfigured. But if she was able to marry anyone, unless they died and in that case she alone would inherit, she would be succeeded by Aonuma Shizuma, who, however, was not known to have ended up with her.
But crimes disturb the precarious coexistence in the Inugami Clan Palace: first Suketomo is found decapitated: in reality the head is found placed one of the four mannequins in the chrysanthemum garden, representing the 4 characters of the Kabuki Theater, while the body is not found and will be found only later in Lake Nasui; then Sutekake will be found tied to a chair and strangled by a Koto rope; finally Sukekiyo will be found upside down in the frozen lake, with his legs apart to symbolize an axe. The crimes seem to recall the three symbols of the family.
To make Takebana's investigation increasingly convoluted and difficult, there is also a phantom demobilized soldier, who stays in small hotels under a convenient name and wanders around the house, proving to know too many things: who is he? Is it Aonuma Shizuma, the son of Sahee and Aonuma Kikuno, or is it Sukekiyo, the son of Matsuko? Indeed at one point Matsuko presented as his son, the man wearing a rubber mask to cover the horror of a face devastated by war, but no one is really sure it's him. And besides, when he touches something that might keep his fingerprints, he too hastens to erase them. Yet when it's the long-awaited moment to confirm one's identity, to affix his fingerprints so that Furudate can compare them with the fingerprints left by the three nephews before the war, in the end it is confirmed that he is indeed Sukekiyo. So why does that something indefinable associated with his person remain? Is it that mask? Will Tamayo's behavior be so strange when he sees him? Why did someone, after beheading Suketake, bother to go and make his body disappear, risking being seen? Who was it that was hiding in Sahee's first house, along the reed bed, washing and eating in the bathroom, the only room not visible from the outside? Was he the one who, after having saved Tamayo's virginity from the aims of Suketomo - who by dishonoring her would have offered to save her by marrying her - killed him? Why did he kill Sukekiyo by sticking him upside down in the ice?
It will be up to Kindaichi Kosuke, settle suspicions and pierce the veil of truth, revealing the twisted plan of a murderer in the shadows and at the same time saving those who accused themselves of the crimes.
THE END OF THE SPOILERS
Frankly, I don't know which Yokomizo's best novel is, but this is a true masterpiece: a novel in which three horrendous crimes are perpetrated in dreamlike landscapes, in an atmosphere in which hatred, passion, envy, lust mix in an explosive amalgam .
Kosuke plays a role here that goes beyond mere investigative action: he is the true center of the action. In fact, there is a prologue that precedes the discovery of his murdered client. It is centered on Tamayo: in fact, someone has staged some attempted accidents against her and the latest of which consists of a hole made in the boat with which she rows on the placid surface of the lake. Basically, if Kosuke hadn't come to save her, the commissioner of his coming to Nasu would have been saved from him, and would have revealed his fears about some of the hereditary people. And so he saving Tamayo (who would still have been saved by her bodyguard) decrees the death not only of Wakabayashi Hoichiro, but also of all those who will come after her. It's a real needle on the balance. And of the action of the novel, which takes place in the period following the end of the Russo-Japanese treaty, in a war-torn Japan; and the Inugami family, devastated in their affections and interests, in turn become a metaphor for Japan. Moreover, this devastation contrasts with the descriptions of the places: the lake, the snowy landscape, the Japanese gardens. And therefore the comparison that derives from it is all the more stringent.
That it is then a novel derived in part from mechanisms typical of Western mystery, is something that is immediately understood: the series of killings in the family to eliminate the suitors, recalls many novels but many, and also the return of the heir, a characterizing element of the British novel, here it is present in the double hypothesis that it could be Aozuma or Sukekiyo. And after all, even if they are typical elements of the western novel, no one can dispute that they may have been chosen regardless of this, because in feudal Japan how many wars of succession and murders and devastations have there been for power? And with a war that had just ended, with so many dead and missing, how many cases were there also in Japan of men believed dead and then returned, who perhaps aspired to take back what they had left behind, leaving for the war? Another element is the continuous masking and unmasking of the characters according to a mechanism typical of the Feuelliton, which could have been absorbed by Gaston Leroux's novels with Rouletabille, above all the first two: Le mystère de la chambre jaune, and Le parfum de la dame en noir and Leroux's first novel had already been recalled in Kindaichi Kosuke's first adventure, Honjin Satsujin Jiken (本陣殺人事件).
Others in my opinion are the elements that directly or indirectly recall the western novel: first of all the death of Wakabayashi Hoichiro, one of the employees of the Furudate Studio, recalls a novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Links, a 1923 novel in which Poirot is sent a letter in which a man who urgently summons him in a case of life and death is found dead, was serialized in the Japanese translation in the magazine Shin Seinen in 1929. And the editor-in-chief of the magazine at that time was Seishi Yokomizo (detail known from Shunichro Futono). So it is certain that Yokomizo took advantage of Christie's gimmick at the right time
Then there is the question of the mask: perhaps Persons Unknown by Edgar Wallace from 1929, but another historical reference is the novel Le Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas, even more stringent, in which the central element is the Man in the Iron Mask, a man who was forced to wear an iron mask from which he could never be separated (except in certain moments of intimacy). A direct reference to the rubber mask would have been Sauvestre's Fantomas who wears rubber masks for his disguises, but as Shunichro told me, this French novel was translated for the first time in Japan in 1964 and therefore long after the publication of the Japanese novel. Now whether or not Yokomizo has read these novels I don't know; what is certain is that in one way or another they could have provided inputs. I confess another association came to mind: the one with the novel by Claude Aveline, La double mort de Frederic Belot, but Shunichro Futono, friendship on Fb, told me that it was first published in Japanese in 1983, the year after Yokomizo's death.
Finally, the last association that I allow myself to hypothesize about a Western novel is the one that refers to an Italian one: Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, translated for the first time from Italian and published in Japanese in 1922, with the title Shinkyoku (literally Divine Song), although already at the beginning of the 1900s, the work was circulating translated from French or German. It was in 1922 that the first complete translation from Italian was prepared by Heizaburo Yamakawa, but the best known and most appreciated translation was that of 1962 by Soichi Nogami. Why allow me to ideally associate Yokomizo with Dante? Because in the third crime, a man is stuck upside down in a frozen lake, with his legs spread, to symbolize an axe. Now there are at least two examples in Dante's Inferno of the Damned inserted into something: the simoniacs those who in the Middle Ages marketed sacred things, whom Dante places in the III Bolgia of the VIII circle, in Canto XIX of the Inferno: the simoniacs are placed upside down in circular holes, with the legs raised and the soles of the feet touched by flames; and, a comparison even closer to us, the traitors of relatives, inserted in the ice (Lago Cocito) up to the head, even if not upside down: in the IX Circle (Canto XXXII). Now, for something that will only be known at the end of the novel, in the final explanation, whoever had been placed upside down in the ice had, in a certain sense, been a parental traitor. Not forgetting that death upside down is historically attributed to George of York, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III, drowned in a barrel of Malvasia: George of Clarence had betrayed his brother Edward by conspiring against him.
Why, in my opinion, is Yokomizo's novel a masterpiece? His greatness in this novel lies in continually turning the truths upside down: is Tamayo an unfortunate woman, or is she astute calculator? Is the man wearing a rubber mask Aonuma or Sukekiyo? Is Shizuma's mother Aonuma Kikuno dead or is she hiding under other guises? Why did the demobilized soldier who hides his face save Tamayo and probably kill Suketomo? How come the individual with the mask who was afraid of leaving footprints, is then recognized as the one who had the honor of wanting to be recognized? The continuous change of situations and hypotheses is rendered in such a refined way by Yokomizo Seishi, who reaches peaks of unusual virtuosity. In a certain way it reminded me of Christianna Brand's Cat and Mouse, precisely because of the ability to keep the reader in suspense, continually turning the same thing over and over again: in some ways Brand's enterprise is even more titanic than that of Seishi because while the park of Yokomizo's characters is large, that of Brand is extremely narrow, and therefore the action of the plot is less varied and the ability to keep the reader captivated is due to her in an even more deserved way. And this ability to disguise himself under different guises is not his only, but also Aonuma Kikuno's, since he will take on the appearance of a koto teacher, who occasionally visits the Inugami Clan mansion, to teach koto (and also to see for the last time old Sahee, dead).
It's not a cheerful novel, far from it. It is a desperate novel, just as the situation in Japan was desperate at the time. But the tragedy of the novel is mitigated by the figure of Kosuke and his obsessions, first of all that of scratching his head conspicuously, as well as dressing in a scruffy way. A detective who is in a sense an anti-detective, an anti-hero: not the pomaded Poirot, not the impeccable Philo Vance, not the noble and snobbish Lord Whimsey, but a dark fellow who would go unnoticed and somehow even disgusted for these detestable quirks of his, were he not a highly regarded and respected detective. And above all a genius of the reconstruction of the facts.
Pietro De Palma
One thing that surprised me, but not so much, is that the names of some characters change according to the western translations, which strengthens my desire to compare, whenever I can and when I notice something strange in the Italian text, the same with the text basis. This time I realized that the names of the three male grandchildren, in French Sukekiyo Suketake, Suketomo, in Italian have been reported verbatim, but in the English edition they are instead in the meaning Kiyo, Take, Tomo. And so they also appear in the English subtitles of the 1976 film. It would therefore be necessary to compare them with the original edition in Japanese: therefore I turned to some friends on Fb, people I follow and who follow me. Shunichro Futono was the one who gave me more than a hand, whom I have already mentioned and who dispelled all my doubts: both nomenclatures in both the English and French (and Italian) editions are correct. Why? The English one is the original one, the other two add (we don't know why) the prefix Suke which in Japanese is a sort of honorific, noble title that indicates belonging to a family and descent (like my De). Moreover, that the original meanings of the names are Kiyo, Take, Tomo, is confirmed by a fact which is reported in the novel and which explains why in the third crime the victim was placed upside down: because in addition to the shape of the body, it must mean how Kiyo is to be seen backwards, and therefore Yoki (which in Japanese means Axe). And therefore to be related to the three symbols of the family: "Yoki", "Koto" and "Kiku", the axe, the Koto and the Chrysanthemum.