Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Devil's Flute Murders, by Seishi Yokomizo


Pushkin-Vertigo, 2023
originally published 1973 as Akuma ga kitarite fue o fuku (悪魔が来りて笛を吹く)
Translated by Jim Rion
256 pp

paperback (read earlier this month)

I really love these Kindaichi novels -- over the years I've become a huge, huge fangirl.  According to Wikipedia, it looks as if this book first appeared as a serialization that ran from 1951 through 1953.  It was later published in 1973 in book form, and now the good people at Pushkin Vertigo have published it in an English translation, thanks to Jim Rion.  Going with that same article in Wikipedia, The Devil's Flute Murders is number fifteen in the series starring Yokomizo's detective Kosuke Kindaichi; it is the fifth of the Kindaichi books to have been published in English by Pushkin Vertigo.  Just a heads up here: at the Wikipedia page for Seishi Yokomizo,  I noticed that there is another translation coming from Pushkin Vertigo in 2024, The Little Sparrow Murders.  I will be grabbing that one as well, of course.  

As I've said many times, I love mysteries based on events of the past and this one did not disappoint.   

Very briefly, the action begins  in Tokyo in 1947, and much of the city and other parts of the country are still in ruins after World War II.  It is also a time when the aristocracy class as a whole is marking the last of its days, a phenomenon, as the author notes, examined that very year by Osamu Dezai in his work The Setting Sun (1947)It would be later that year that the peerage came to its official end with the establishment of the new Japanese constitution, but when Viscount Hidesuke Tsubaki was found dead, he was still officially a member of the "sunset class." Before then, he had been a quiet and unassuming man with no cares about influence or ambition. He was also an accomplished flautist whose recording of "The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute" was quite popular.  His home in Tokyo had survived the firebombing of the city, but unfortunately that wasn't the case with his brother-in-law's residence, which was destroyed, prompting him to move into Tsubaki's home.   This relocation caused no end of stress for the Viscount; the addition of his wife's uncle Tamamushi coming to live at the estate only worsened the situation.   Then on March 1, Tsubaki simply vanished, leaving home "without a word of explanation to his family," never to return.   Some time passes before his body is discovered, identified by his daughter Mineko and other family/household members.   As this novel begins in earnest, in September Mineko has made her way to see private detective Kosuke Kindaichi  with a bizarre story that immediately captures his attention.  It seems that after Tsubaki's death, her mother Akiko, her maid Otane and her uncle's mistress Kikue had gone to the theatre where Kikue had clearly seen the Viscount sitting in the front row of the balcony.  He was gone by the time they had the courage to go and check it out, but seeing him had sent Akiko into a panic.  Kindaichi agrees to go to the Tsubaki home when Mineko mentions a "divination" (sort of like a séance) that is about to be held there.   He enters into a most surreal and strange experience resulting from that event that surprises everyone else as well, but that's just the beginning:  it is there for the first (but not the last) time that he hears the sound of Tsubaki playing his  "The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute," which, together with sightings of Tsubaki walking in the estate grounds, rattles everyone in the household.  From that point, Kindaichi is fully involved; what he can't possibly predict is that the deaths will pile up before he can get to the core of this mystery based on secrets that go well back in time. The Inugami Clan continues to remain at the top of the list of my favorite Kindaichi novels, but The Devil's Flute Murders definitely comes in a very close second.  While there is a solid mystery at its core, Yokomizo also examines the deleterious effects of wealth, social status and privilege, and in this case it's not just ugly, but deadly. 

 I've purposefully  offered only a barebones description  here since the book itself is quite involved with a level of complexity I haven't yet seen in this series; after having finished it, I can see why the serialization of this novel lasted so long.   Yokomizo obviously took his time,  allowing  Kindaichi to unravel each and every strand (and there are many) of this perplexing case until the detective can get to the bottom of it all.  It might be worth noting here that if you're someone who wants their mysteries solved quickly with a standard cut-and-dried, formulaic approach to a solution, you won't find that here.  Another thing:  the huge cast of characters is listed in the front in a sort of dramatis-personae type thing, but I became pretty frustrated at flipping back to that list time and again so I finally ended up just making a copy to leave nearby while reading.   And speaking of characters, at one point I actually said to my spouse that I believe this is the first time in reading a book where there were  only two people  I liked, and that was Kindaichi and the dead Tsubaki.    Reader beware -- if you're someone who has to like the people inhabiting your books, you might be a bit disappointed.    

I am beyond happy to report that I did not guess the who until nearly the end when Yokomizo almost hands it to the reader,  although I will say that I did sort of figure out the underlying why in a vague way a bit earlier.   If I explain what it was that made me get that far,  it wouldn't be fair to people who may decide to read this book, so we'll leave it there.  Bottom line: when all is said and done, The Devil's Flute Murders is a solid and compelling mystery that regular readers of Japanese mysteries in translation or regular readers of the Pushkin Vertigo Kindaichi series novels should absolutely not miss, although it is very different in many ways from its predecessors.   


As the book was winging its way to me, I had purchased a copy of the 1979 film adapted from this novel, but after  some research, I found at least two more adaptations, the earliest dated 1954.  If there are more I haven't found them yet so if anyone has any info, please let me know.   Toshiyuki Nishida has the role of the very, very scruffy Kindaichi, and while the movie is quite good, had I not read the novel prior to watching the film I think I would have been lost. The powers that be who put this movie together made several changes that detracted from the essence of the book, but it was still an entertaining film, complete with subtitles.

The version from 2018 (available with subtitles on YouTube) is the better of the two, with Hidetaka Yoshioka as a very angsty Kindaichi.  This adaptation was an NHK TV movie, and the storyline was 
clear and straightforward, making it easy to pick up on what's happening even if you haven't read the

from ho-lingnojikenbo

 book.  This was even better than the Kindaichi films I've watched that were done by Kon Ichikawa, which for me is saying a lot.

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