The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

The kindness of fellow bloggers is one of the great joys of the online interactions I have as part of the bookish interweb. As well as discussions, ideas, reading suggestions and general bookish mateyness, one of the other lovely things we do is share our books around! I always love to send on volumes I’m not likely to re-read to other interested bloggers, and I’ve been lucky enough to recieve books in return. “The Honjin Murders” is one of those, kindly sent on to me by Janet at From First Page to Last; I don’t know why I’d not picked up on it before because it sounded right up my street and turned out to be perfect distraction reading during our current situation…

Seishi Yokomizo was apparently one of Japan’s best-loved crime writers, so it’s to my shame that I’d never heard of his work. “The Honjin Murders” introduces his regular protagonist, the amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi, who went on to feature in a series of 77 books; and it’s widely regarded as one of Japan’s greatest mystery novels. So quite a reputation to live up to, which I’m pleased to say the book did!

“Honjin…” is set in the winter of 1937, in the village of Okamura, where the place is full of excitement; a wedding is due to take place in the aristocratic Ichiyanagi family, a clan with a long dynastic history. But on the wedding night violent screams are heard from the newlyweds’ annexe, and the pair are discovered stabbed to death. This is no straightforward murder, however, as the doors and windows are locked from the inside, the murder weapon is outside the building and, crucially, there are no footprints in the snow. Add in the fact that spooky koto music is heard at night and a strange, masked, three-fingered man has been seen in the area, and the plot really does get thicker and thicker!

This is the book’s first translation into English, and I really can’t understand why it’s taken so long for this to happen – so kudos to Pushkin Press! I shan’t discuss too many specifics of the plot, because I would hate to spoil the pleasure for anyone else reading it, but it was such fun! “Honjin…” really is the Japanese equivalent of a Golden Age country house murder; there’s a posh extended family all present and correct, complete with their emotion baggage and the tensions caused by being under the same roof. There’s an impossible locked room crime, hints of mystery in the past and a mysterious stranger. The plot is wonderfully clever and twisty, and there was no way I was going to work out whodunnit and why!

Let’s talk about the amateur sleuth. Kosuke is a young man who travelled to America, narrowly escaped from drug addiction and set himself up as a private detective. Fortunately, he’s known to the late bride’s uncle Ginzo, who attended the wedding and who calls Kosuke in to investigate the slaughter. Yokomizo’s description of his detective paints a vivid picture, and the young man turns out to be very deceptive.

A young man alighted at N- station on the Hakubi Line, and came sauntering down the road towards K- Town. He was around twenty-five or -six, of medium build, on the pale side, and he would have been completely unremarkable if it weren’t for his unusual choice of clothes. He wore a matching set of short haori jacket and kimono in a kind of splash-pattern dye, with a traditional hakama skirt of narrow stripes over it. However, the haori and kimono were full of wrinkles, and the hakama, conversely, had lost any trace of its crisp pleats. His toenails were beginning to poke through the ends of his tabi socks, his wooden geta clogs were worn down, his hat had lost its shape… In short, for a young man in the prime of life he seemed shockingly indifferent to his appearance.

The image is almost of a Columbo-like character, yet Kosuke is sharp as anything, as well as being well versed in the classics of crime literature!

In fact, one of the delights of this book was the undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek nods to GA novels and authors – in fact, further back all the way to Poe – and many a knowing homage to the greats. There are references to A.A. Milne and Gaston Leroux, as well as Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie; and of course John Dickson Carr gets numerous mentions. Intriguingly, both the narrator and one of the family members have an almost unhealthy interest in classic crime, in particular locked room mysteries, and any lover of GA writing will get a kick out of this element of the book.

1930s Japan Travel Poster – Japanese Government Railways / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, there’s another aspect of the book which is particularly interesting, and that is the focus on the changes taking place in Japan, both pre-WW2 when the mystery takes place, and immediately post WW2 when the narrator is telling the tale (the book was published in 1946). The author builds these elements into the storyline, and it adds fascinating colour and history to his tale. There is much here, as well, which throws light on differing attitudes towards men and women in Japanese society and how they might be changing. An acknowledgement in passing at the end of the book about recent events added poignancy to the narrative, too…

The story is told in the voice of an author, writing the story from a variety of reports and source (though whether this is a narrator standing in for the author or meant to represent Yokomizo himself isn’t spelled out and probably doesn’t really matter). He’s an engaging and down to earth companion, enthusiastic about his story and happy to show off his knowledge of crime literature and the mystery to hand. I’ll be happy to make his and Kosuke’s acquaintance again!

So “The Honjin Murders” turned out to be a marvellous read, a real classic crime mystery with wonderful twists (in setting and context, as well as the crime itself!) As I said above, I’m really surprised that this book hasn’t been translated before because it’s such a good read and completely absorbing (which is very welcome at the moment). I so enjoyed my first encounter with detective Kosuke Kindaichi and, most pleasingly, it won’t have to be my last, as I see that Pushkin Press have put out another one of his adventures….! 😀

Thanks so much to Janet for so kindly sending on the book – you can read her review here!