“Death on Gokumon Island” by Seishi Yokomizo

Death on Gokumon Island, Seishi Yokomizo, Louise Heal Kawai (trans) (Pushkin, June 2022) Death on Gokumon Island, Seishi Yokomizo, Louise Heal Kawai (trans) (Pushkin, June 2022)

It was in the late 1930s that private detective Kosuke Kindaichi solved The Honjin Murders, the brutal killing of a newlywed couple in Okayama. Military service has prevented him from investigating another case since. Death on Gokumon Island, the second book in the Detective Kindaichi Mystery series by Seishi Yokomizo, begins just after the Second World War, and soldiers are returning home. On the repatriation ship, Kindaichi’s close comrade Chimata Kito dies en route to Japan, but not before making one final request of him:


“Go to Gokumon Island. My three sisters will be murdered. Go to Gokumon Island in my place. Save my sisters.”


Chimata had read about the Honjin Murder case in the newspaper and trusted that his friend would put his investigative skills to work for the Kito family. On the ferry to Gokumon Island, Kindaichi meets two of its prominent residents: Ryonen, the priest from Senkoji Temple, and Takezo, the tide master for the local fishing boss. After arriving, he is taken to meet Chimata’s relatives and then given lodging at the temple.

On the island, families are awaiting news of their loved ones, radio programs mark the evening hours, and fishing is the main occupation of the residents. He explores his new surroundings and stops to admire the splendid view. Here, as throughout the book, the setting is vividly described, drawing on details from Japanese art and culture.


The sea seemed clearer and more transparent than ever, the colour of liquid indigo, like a print by the famous ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige. The tide drew serpentine stripes across the water, among which the Seto Islands were arranged like go stones on a board.


Gokumon Island is however anything but paradise—its name literally means Hell’s Gate—and the inhabitants of this particular location on the Seto Inland Sea are descended from prisoners and pirates. Because of its geographic isolation and lack of outside visitors, even with a letter of introduction from Chimata, Kindaichi is regarded with deep suspicion, especially when the predicted murders begin to occur.

The three sisters—Tsukiyo, Yukie, and Hanako—are killed one by one. First, Hanako goes missing. When her body is eventually found on the temple grounds, the only visible clues are footprints in the mud and cigarettes rolled in a page from the English dictionary. Next, Yukie and then Tsukiyo fall victim to the killer, their bodies also staged in bizarre and dramatic displays: Yukie’s murder is reminiscent of a scene from a stage play and Tsukiyo’s of the lyrics from an old, well-known song.

Kindaichi vows that he will discover who is responsible, and to do so, he begins familiarizing himself with the local gossip by chatting with Seiko the barber. The Kito family is anything but simple, as evidenced by the character chart in the front of the book, and over the years, the main Kito family and the branch Kito family have fallen out. As for Chimata’s lineage, his grandfather is deceased, and his father, Yosamatsu, has a mental health condition. He is cared for at the main residence by his niece, but readers should be aware that the book was originally published in the 1940s, and the treatment of his illness and the terms used to describe it are outdated.

Because Kindaichi was unable to prevent the murders and is confounded by the case, he starts to feel that he has let his late friend down. Contrary to his rumpled appearance and dandruff laden head, he is a brilliant detective, and once he lets go of his initial, erroneous assumptions, the solution begins to take shape.

The Honjin Murders and Death on Gokumon Island are both translated by Louise Heal Kawai and would best be read together. For those looking for more of Detective Kindaichi, The Inugami Curse and The Village of Eight Graves are also available.

Mary Hillis (@mhillis) is a teacher and writer based in Japan.