The Honjin Murders

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THE HONJIN MURDERS

“From the moment I heard the first whispers about the case, I was fascinated…  This was no ordinary murder.  The perpetrator had planned the whole ghastly deed.  What’s more, it was worthy of the label “Locked Room Murder Mystery”… a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point in his or her career.”  (Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders, 1946).

I’m a member of the Classic Crime Club, a monthly reading group at the historic Bromley House Library in Nottingham. 

Of course we’ve been meeting on Zoom this last year, saying hello to each other from our own homes.  But that hasn’t stopped us going further afield in our reading.  We usually limit ourselves to UK crime fiction from the Golden Age of approximately 1920 to 1950.  But sometimes we’ve delved into fiction from an earlier period or a non-UK setting.  This has included Simenon from France and Rex Stout from the USA, for example.

But probably our furthest global reach so far has been The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo.  This story was originally serialised in Japan in 1946 but only recently translated into English and published in 2019.  The whole group found this book fascinating, especially the extent to which the writer used the classic tropes of British Locked Room mysteries.

Author

Seishi Yokomizo (1902-81) won the first ever Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948 for this book. 

He went on to create seventy seven mysteries featuring the same detective, although sadly only two of them have been translated into English – The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse (Pushkin Vertigo, 2020).

Plot

A newly married couple are killed on their wedding night in the annexe of a family mansion.  A Japanese sword is found embedded in the ground outside, surrounded by snow but no footprints.  Inside the bedroom there is a lot of blood plus bloody fingerprints.  Is it anything to do with a mysterious stranger with only three fingers on one hand who has been seen in the area, or is the reason for the deaths a deeper, darker family secret?

The first person narration was enjoyable, as if Dr Watson is telling us directly about a case of Sherlock Holmes’.  Indeed, the narrator is supposed to be a writer of crime fiction, this time researching ‘true crime’.

Yokomizo is particularly upfront about his favourite British, American and French authors and their influence on him, such as John Dickson Carr.  Having one character, Saburo, with an obsession with Western crime fiction means that discussion of methods of murder from these sources can be easily included in the text.

Japanese Context

As with many Golden Age Detective (GAD) novels in or around the Second World War, one is not immediately presented with wartime conditions. I was astounded by a  throwaway remark about a character being unlucky to be in Hiroshima on the wrong day  – this surely gives a new definition to ‘bad luck’!!  The murders themselves are supposed to take place in the 1930s.

I was engaged by the story throughout and found the details of Japanese life very interesting. The references to Japanese clothes and shoes and various rituals as part of the story were a huge plus, even if it extended to the use of ‘seppuku’, often known as ‘hara-kiri’, the form of suicide by disembowellment.  A different culture certainly provides different methods of grisly death for the use of the GAD writer!

Japanese music is also featured heavily, especially the creepy use of ‘koto’ music and the wire and plectrums used with that particular stringed instrument.  This made me watch some koto music online, which was intriguing and beautiful.

Plot and Motive

There was a major misdirection from the word go, plus several satisfying twists in the plot.  However the motivation of the killer might be rather hard for the modern Western reader to stomach (no pun intended)!  However, I do like a story where practically every sentence could include a clue.

Characters

There are many likeable characters and fortunately there is a very useful Character List at the beginning, in case you get your Ichiyanagis muddled up with your Kubos, the two main families concerned.  I particularly liked Ginzo, the bride’s uncle and patron of Kosuke.  The most irritating character was possibly Suzoku – was she rather stereotyped by the author or was this ground-breaking characterisation at the time?

The Detectives

As with many GAD stories, the official police are a rather negligible presence compared to the private investigator who is often an outsider or eccentric in some way.  This is certainly the case with the young Kosuke Kindaichi, the brilliant private investigator who gets all the glory.

  I was expecting an older detective who would perhaps have people’s respect, so the young Kosuke with his stammering and constant head-scratching was a definite surprise.  He was very much the scruffy but hyper-intelligent student-type.

I really liked him by the end of the book, despite his mannerisms, and wanted to read more.  The character Kosuko Kindaichi has since starred in many films and is now embodied in the form of a statuette awarded to a new unpublished mystery novel each year, like the Edgar in the US.

Conclusion

The Japanese setting gave a new zest to the usual GAD tropes and the author was very  endearing to be so upfront about the Western influences on his fiction.  I would gladly read more of Kosuke’s cases, if only there were more in translation – just one more is not enough!


MASKS AND MURDER

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A Golden Age for Masks?

Back in 2015 when I began planning my contemporary crime novel Night and Mr Knightley, I considered using a masked ball as the setting for a murder.  I was using Jane Austen’s Emma as the basis for the plot and so a regency ball seemed appropriate and the use of masks ideal for the schemes of a murderer. 

New novel: Night and Mr Knightley




But a masked ball?  Yes, it had been used extensively in Golden Age Detective fiction (GAD), but that in itself made it seem rather passé.  Would people now think that the wearing of masks could be at all believable?

The story itself was to take place in the autumn of 2016.

But then, at that precise moment, the world seemed to go a bit mad – in masks!  There were huge marches of protesters wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks in the November of that year – the Million Mask March.

Guy Fawkes Mask




There were gangs of clowns wearing make-up like a mask attacking people (I kid you not) especially in my home city of Nottingham where my stories are set.  The combo of Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night had a lot to answer for!

Also there were protests in Europe about whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public with only their eyes showing in case they were concealing explosive packages and couldn’t be identified. 

And on a more local level, I had planned on referring to one of our theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, as part of the story – they then staged Thomas Middleton’s ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’ in November 2016, which I soon discovered was a jacobean gore-fest featuring mass murder at a masked ball !  It couldn’t have been more appropriate so I decided to feature it as a major theme in my story.

But becoming a Carer for my dear Mum in the last three years has meant something of a delay in my speed of book production.  The publication of Night and Mr Knightley would have to be delayed to 2020.  Would the subject of the wearing of masks be considered passé by then?  Er, well…

There are far too many GAD stories featuring masks and masked balls for me to mention them all.  But here is a taste of a few of them that I either read for research or refer to directly in my novel, hopefully without any spoilers.

The Masks Themselves

Masks come in many colours and materials.  I began with reading Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask of 1928 which features a full-face mask of grey rubber.   A bank robber in John Dickson Carr’s Colonel March story Hot Money (made for TV in 1952) also wears a full-cover rubber face mask as a robbery and a murder are committed.  In White Face by Edgar Wallace (1931) the villain wears a white cloth cut with two eye holes. 

Then more colourfully there was Behind the Green Mask by Ralph Trevor (1940), Greenmask by J Jefferson Farjeon (1944),

and the classic short story The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842).

Frequently, though, the masks were simple black eye masks such as that worn by E W Hornung’s Raffles (1901)

or The Count of Monte Christo by Dumas (1844)

or Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders (1928). 

(I originally had a black eye mask featured on the cover of my book but the designer turned it a striking pink – which I rather like!)

 Party!

Just this list shows that masks were useful for individuals committing crime, sometimes skulking on their own down dark streets, but often in plain sight in public because everyone was at a party and disguised by masks as well.

JJ Connington’s detective Sir Clinton Driffield is annoyed in Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927) that his friends have chosen fancy dress for their large country house party –  masks make it too easy for a criminal:

“ ‘I’m not altogether easy in my mind over this masked ball of Joan’s.  Speaking as a Chief Constable responsible for the good behaviour of the district, Cecil, it seems to me that you are running some risks over it.  A dance is all very well.  You know all your guests by headmark [sic] and no one can get in on false pretences.  But once you start masks, it’s a different state of affairs altogether.’ “

So true.

This was certainly the case in Agatha Christie’s The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923).

But  Dorothy L Sayers of course reverses this in her Murder Must Advertise (1933), since disguising himself as a harlequin with a mask enables the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey to deceive and mislead the criminals. 

There is also her short story The Queen’s Square (1932) featuring a fancy dress ball (Lord Peter is dressed as the Jack of Diamonds) but I couldn’t see any references to masks even though one would have expected them to feature.  Sayers also refers to the American pulp fiction Black Mask magazine “that monthly collection of mystery and sensational fiction”, featuring it as a clue (or an anti-clue?) in Unnatural Death (1927) which Inspector Parker refers to disparagingly as “light reading for the masses”.

When looking at the subject of masks online I came across a lot of items on what has been labelled ‘The Party of the Century’.  This was Truman Capote’s bash in New York in 1966, ostensibly in honour of the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham, and Everyone who was Anyone was there.  It took the form of a black-and-white masked ball.

 I used this in my novel as Prisha Chatterjee’s inspiration for the masked ball that she is helping to arrange for the fictional Nottingham Knights Entertainment Company.  The dresses of 1966, for example Mia Farrow’s, look almost regency, though somewhat shorter!

Edgar Allan Poe’s party in The Masque of the Red Death, however, is predictably more scary and apparently now has something of a cult following in America at Halloween.  It concerns a wealthy Prince who invites all his friends to his castle to join him at a non-stop lock-down party so they can avoid a plague that is ravaging the land.  The plague is called the Red Death.  It is a masquerade with music, food and entertainment, whilst the poor are left outside the castle walls to suffer (sounding familiar?).  Then a mysterious and ominous figure all in red, including a red mask, appears at the party uninvited…  I’ll leave you to guess the rest.  Just like the classic image of the executioner in a black hood to hide his face, masks can be worn to protect the identity of those who are a form of Nemesis, who implement appropriate revenge for wrongdoers and enemies.

Conclusion

In GAD masks were frequently worn around the eyes, not the mouth.  But usually if someone was in a mask it meant they were about to rob you at the very least but quite possibly kill you.  Here and now in January 2021 someone with a mask around their mouth and nose is more frequently trying to save your life.

As part of this general trend, there have been many literary-themed fabric masks produced, several featuring Jane Austen or quotes from her work. The ‘social distancing’ of regency life has also meant lots of photoshop opportunities utilising her stories.

And representations of Jane herself have not escaped the mask message.

Statue of Jane Austen with mask

In 2016 masks were being worn by those protesting the curtailing of our freedom.  This can also be true now, but more often the opposite is the case – people  refusing to wear masks because they feel it curtails their freedom.  On the news it has just been reported that a third of police in the UK have had people without masks spitting at them or coughing on them, now a potentially murderous act.  There have been ‘COVID-deniers’ without masks invading hospitals and endangering the staff and patients’ lives.

So regardless of the time gap between now and the Golden Age of crime fiction, all this shows that masks are still a matter of life and death, although our perception of how they function has been turned upside down.

But I must leave you now.  A man in a black mask has just come to my door – delivering something nice from Amazon.

[For more on Night and Mr Knightley by Jeanette Sears, see the WELCOME page or go straight to Amazon Kindle]