For this edition in our Digging Deeper series, we are going to switch focus a little. There’s a strong musical connection of course, but here we are looking into the world of independent book publishing courtesy of a moment in time when two Japanese cultural icon's careers intersected. One is a legend of Japanese jazz music who was once recognised as a "living national treasure" by the Japanese government, and the other is one of Japan's most famous and best-loved mystery writers.
During his wonderful career of over five decades, Hozan Yamamoto pushed Japanese jazz into new directions, absorbing fusion, funk, spiritual jazz and many other sounds. This resulted in a discography studded with gems of rare beauty. Mr Bongo has had the privilege of reissuing three albums from Yamamoto-san, and it is one of those albums that led to this feature….
In 2021 we reissued Hozan Yamamoto’s original soundtrack to the 1979 mystery and suspense movie, 'Devil's Flute (悪魔が来りて笛を吹く)' by Kôsei Saitô. The film is based on ‘The Devil’s Flute Murders’, a book by the author, Seishi Yokomizo. It is centred around a much-loved fictional Japanese detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, a character who has been described as a Japanese Sherlock Holmes and has been immensely popular within Japan for generations.
The fantastic independent publisher, Pushkin Vertigo, has just released its English translation of ’The Devil’s Flute Murders’, so we thought this was a great opportunity to delve deeper into the world of Seishi Yokomizo. It was one of those glorious "down the rabbit hole" moments that opened our eyes to a body of work that we didn't previously know enough about. The point of this blog is to tell stories, so we thought why not dedicate some time to a master story teller! It also gave us the opportunity to talk a little about the work of an independent publisher in general. There are numerous parallels between independent labels and publishers, but especially in this case, where both parties are noted for looking to the global stage for the talent they represent, enriching the source material with as much context as possible, and presenting sometimes decades-old work to a modern audience. So, step forward, Daniel Seton, a commissioning editor at Pushkin Vertigo, and an all-round top chap.
Please can you give us a brief introduction to Pushkin Vertigo and your role there?
Pushkin Vertigo is the crime and thrillers imprint of Pushkin Press, an independent publisher based in London with a strong emphasis on bringing books from other countries and languages to readers of English. As an editor acquiring for the Pushkin Vertigo list, my main role is to scour the world for the best crime novels that have yet to be translated into English.
How do you go about deciding what to publish - you have an almost endless supply of material to choose from, what makes a suitable Pushkin Vertigo title/author?
It’s tricky. Especially when the novels in question only exist in languages I can’t read! I rely a lot on the advice of translators, agents and editors in foreign countries, who give me tips on what to go for. In general, we look for books that are either big established classics in their home countries (like Yokomizo) or contemporary crime fiction that is getting a lot of attention right now.
How did you discover Seishi Yokomizo?
When Pushkin Vertigo was founded back in 2015, it was a really exciting new imprint to be involved with. I’d always loved reading whodunits by the great British masters of crime, like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle etc. from a young age, so to have the chance to explore the crime writing cultures of other countries was a real treat. It quickly became apparent that some countries have richer crime traditions than others, and Japan was one of the richest, with decades of classics to explore, very few of which had ever been translated into English. An editor who has now left Pushkin had the idea of looking into Seishi Yokomizo, and luckily both she and I were able to read some of his titles in French, and in old English translations.
How well-known is Seishi Yokomizo in Japan?
Very! His great creation Kosuke Kindaichi is as synonymous with the word ‘detective’ as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot in the UK. His books have sold tens of millions of copies and been adapted for dozens of really popular films, which are still regularly shown on television in Japan. He’s possibly the biggest name in Japanese crime writing.
The Guardian described Seishi Yokomizo as “Japan’s answer to Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr”, why do you think it took so long for an English translation to come about?
Good question! I think the answer lies in the publishing culture in the UK & US, which was traditionally quite reluctant to publish books in translation. I think publishers used to worry that readers might see translated books as inherently difficult, niche or highbrow, but houses like Pushkin have proved that to be untrue. Our readers love to curl up with a Yokomizo just as much as a Christie!
Seishi Yokomizo’s most famous/iconic character is Kosuke Kindaichi, what do you think the appeal of this character is?
I always think Kindaichi is a bit like a cross between Poirot and Columbo. He’s notoriously scruffy, with a big bird’s nest of hair that he’s always furiously scratching when he tries to think, to the point that the people he meets in the books often underestimate him. He’s also reliably brilliant, however, always coming up with an ingenious solution to the seemingly impossible crimes he’s faced with. He’s actually really likeable too, which is perhaps a slight difference from the two sleuths mentioned above! He’s an undeniably good guy, and his past experiences in the Second World War help to flesh him out as a character.
Your next book in the Kosuke Kindaichi series is ‘The Devil’s Flute Murders’, is it possible to give a brief synopsis of the plot?
We’ve published five Kindaichi mysteries so far, and this is one of the best. It might even be my favourite! Like a lot of Yokomizo’s mysteries, it’s set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Much of Tokyo is still in ruins, but somehow the grand house of the Tsubaki family has remained standing. The head of the family is an enigmatic, troubled flautist and composer, Viscount Tsubaki, who is most famous for an eerie, chilling piece called ‘The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute’. When he is found dead it is the beginning of a series of brutal murders, which the great Kosuke Kindaichi is called in to solve…
Have you had the chance to watch the 1979 film adaptation of the book; 'Devil's Flute (悪魔が来りて笛を吹く) by Kôsei Saitô?
I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t yet, which is unforgivable, since I think it is available on Youtube with English subtitles. Thank you for the reminder, though – that’s one for the weekend.
We sent you a copy of Hozan Yamamoto’s soundtrack to the film, was it musically what you expected?
I love it, especially the title theme, which is just as haunting as you would want it to be. I was actually already familiar with it before you sent us the beautiful LP. I have a habit of listening to Yokomizo film soundtracks as I listen to his books, and this is my favourite. And of course, it’s the perfect companion to the book as it allows you to hear the creepy ‘The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute’ while you are reading about it. In fact, I think everyone who reads this needs to get hold of a copy of both the book and album so they can listen/read in tandem!
Anna Morrison’s cover art for the Kosuke Kindaichi series is stunning. How important are these elements to Pushkin Vertigo?
Yes, the covers are amazing, and I think they are a huge part of why the books have done so well for us. We try to ensure all our books are gorgeous objects, which people will want to hold, spend time with and gift to friends. Anna has captured the Golden Age Japanese mystery atmosphere perfectly with her series of designs. Of the lot, I think 'Death on Gokumon Island' (another great book with a cracking Seventies film soundtrack) is my favourite, closely followed by 'The Honjin Murders' – the original and most famous Kindaichi mystery.
Do you think Seishi Yokomizo will ever become well-known outside of Japan?
I would say he is already well on his way! His books are the most popular titles on our crime list, and each new mystery we release seems to be snapped up by eager fans. We’ve had lots of very positive coverage in the press, too, and he has some big-name fans in authors like Anthony Horowitz and Janice Hallett. As to whether he will ever be as huge in the UK as he is in Japan… that’s a big ask, but we will keep on trying.
Here at Mr Bongo, we are finding that as time goes on there is a growing receptivity to music from all over the globe, is that also happening in the publishing world?
Yes, definitely. I touched on this above, but things are really changing in the publishing world too. The percentage of titles published in translation has risen in recent years as publishers have caught on to the fact that readers are actually very open and even excited about exploring books from other cultures.
What are some of the biggest challenges in trying to introduce an English-speaking audience to an author such as Seishi Yokomizo?
As with all our books, it’s important to ensure that the translation is excellent, as well as the book’s cover design and physical package. With some Yokomizo titles (including 'The Devil’s Flute Murders') there has been an extra challenge of working out how to translate certain clues to the mystery that rely on language or wordplay in the original Japanese. I’m pleased to say I think we’ve always managed to find a really good solution and working on those problems with our translators is actually one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.
Other than that, to be honest, Yokomizo is easy to publish! His mysteries have all the enjoyable, familiar elements that many of our readers will recognise from Golden Age British and American Classics, but are also steeped in Japanese culture, filled with unforgettable characters and set in vividly evoked locations. What’s not to like?
Are there any ‘must-read’ authors you would suggest our readers look into alongside Seishi Yokomizo?
There are so many names I could recommend. I’m tempted to say just explore the Pushkin Vertigo list! But if I had to pick out one author, it would be Yukito Ayatsuji. Like Yokomizo, he’s a proponent of the honkaku (orthodox) style of murder mystery – i.e. one in which the readers are given all the clues they need to solve the mystery themselves – but Ayatsuji was part of a new wave of honkaku authors who, beginning in the eighties, started to craft brilliantly clever whodunits with even more emphasis on this central puzzle element, creating perfectly plotted mysteries with diagrams and clues aplenty for readers to pore over and breath-taking reveals in the finale. So far we’ve published Ayatsuji’s 'The Decagon House Murders' and 'The Mill House Murders', and there will be plenty more to come…
Hozan Yamamoto & Yu Imai - Akuma Ga Kitarite Fue Wo Fuku (Devil’s Flute) is out now on Vinyl LP and CD.