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!


PATRICIA WENTWORTH: ‘MISS SILVER COMES TO STAY’

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“ ‘How can a poor policeman compete?  You can take the village lid off and see how the wheels are going round.  Gladys and Allan are people to you.  You know their relations to the ninth and tenth degree, where I don’t even know they exist!’ “

This is Chief Constable Randal March speaking to an elderly lady who knits and asks questions and observes and deduces and solves murder mysteries before the police.  Is it Miss Marple?  No.  It’s Miss Maud Silver in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1951), the third of the 32 Miss Silver novels.

It’s easy to get tied up in comparing Marple and Silver, but thankfully several other people have already done this, so that’s one less thing on the To Do list [1].  To put it briefly, the two characters appeared almost simultaneously in the late 1920s, with Marple just pipping the post in a short story of 1927 [2] but Silver beating her to novel form in 1928 [3].  Presumably this means that Wentworth’s creation may predate Christie’s in terms of the actual writing.

The Author

Like so many Golden Age authors of detective fiction, the name ’Patricia Wentworth’ was of course a pseudonym.  The ‘Wentworth’ came from the middle name of a stepson who had been killed in the First World War.  In real life, Dora Amy Elles was born in 1877 in Missourie, India, to a British military family – her father was a General and her mother a Lady.

As with many empire children, she was sent back to England to be educated.  She married twice, both times to Lt Colonels called George.  She had one daughter of her own as well as the stepsons.  After her first husband’s death in 1906 she moved to Camberley in Surrey, won a prize for her first novel in 1910 (an astonishing 250 guineas) for a romance of the French Revolution called A Marriage under Terror.

But we have to wait till 1928 for the first book with Miss Silver.  That was Grey Mask, then came a long gap while she experimented with other characters.

It was almost 10 years before The Case is Closed was published (1937), followed more closely by Lonesome Road (1939).

But it was during the Second World War that we see her Miss Silver production rocket, often more than one book a year, so most belong to the 1940s and 50s.  The final one The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year of Wentworth’s death at the age of 82.

Miss Maud Silver

Miss Maud Silver is a former governess and teacher who runs her own solo detective agency.  She is a reassuring figure from the past who likes to knit and quote Tennyson.  She has her own flat and office, uses business cards and charges fees for her work – a real professional.  She is particularly good at helping the relatively wealthy middle class, injured by lost love, war, theft, or some form of abuse, and sorting out their broken lives.  The books read like an Elizabeth Goudge novel with detection, or an Ethel Lina White story of a woman in jeopardy – but this time people get a spinster knitter to the rescue!

The Plot

Miss Silver Comes to Stay is the sixteenth book in the series.  Miss Silver has planned an innocent trip to see an old school friend in the country, but of course this not how things turn out.  The main character, an attractive middle-aged woman called Rietta Cray, first spots Miss Silver in the local village store. “She looked less like a detective than anyone Rietta could have imagined… the little lady who looked like a governess…” – probably because Miss Silver had indeed enjoyed twenty years “in the scholastic profession” [4].  Inevitably Miss Silver is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of James Lessiter which is shortly to take place, even though its roots go back twenty five years.  He has inherited Melling House from his mother who previously let distant relative Catherine Welby live in the gate house of the manor and gave her some furniture and precious items – or did she only lend them?  James intends to find out and get them back, which means  Catherine is now in financial trouble.  And does Rietta’s nephew, Carr Robertson, have a very good reason to hate James?  And have servants or their offspring also been stealing from him?  When James goes to the family solicitor for help in sorting it all out, he might get more than he bargained for.

There are lots of clues spread around in these complicated relationships, plus in the steadily revealed timetable of who visited James on that last night and for what reason.  I found it easy to get involved and start rooting for the characters as Wentworth describes them like intimate friends.  The setting is also so very well realised.  I’m glad to say that I was so involved that I didn’t notice who ‘did’ it, as in fact it was very well hidden.  I got the feel of “this hard post-war world” [5] and felt invested in the fate of the characters.  One sub-plot was particularly interesting – the revived romance between Carr and Elizabeth Moore.  This in particular reminded me of an Elizabeth Goudge novel.  After years apart, involving war and other relationships with the wrong people, they were together at last:

 ‘Elizabeth’s world had come back to normal again…. She got up and began to make tea, fetching the kettle from the kitchen, moving about the small domestic tasks as if they were the whole of love and service.  It was perhaps the happiest hour she had ever known.  To receive back all you have lost, all that you have not even hoped for, to be allowed to give again what you have kept unspent, is joy beyond words.” [6]

That could sum up the situation for several key characters – the ones who survive the  revenge and bloodletting.

Conclusion

This Patricia Wentworth mystery is not just about restoring the moral order of the universe by punishing evil and rewarding good.  It is also about the restoring of relationship.  Right Order also includes Right Relationship and that’s where the romance fits in.  It’s not just important that the right person is punished for the crime, it’s extremely important that the right people end up together.  Just as the various murders have been about the catastrophic absence of love, the romance is about the restoration of love.  We’ve seen what happens, in the fate of James Lessiter and others, when human relationships go wrong, but we now need to see the counter-balance of human relationships going well and flourishing, and the restoring of community and meaning that goes along with it.  The love that is now possible between the survivors suffuses everything in a moment with meaning, even the most mundane of pastimes.

Surely this is another similarity between Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie – they are both as concerned as Jane Austen that their women end up with the right man!  But crucially this is more than counter-balanced by the role of the heroine spinster who enables all this to come about with an almost God-like role in exposing sin, bringing about right judgment and justice, and the restoration of right relationship.  Miss Silver may have only come to stay for a while, but in that space of time she helps put right what is wrong and leaves everything the better for her presence, however temporary.  Her knitting (that often is completed at the end of a case) is not just a pastime for a ‘silly old woman’, a mistake made at their peril by biased observers.  Miss Silver, like Miss Marple, is more like one of the Fates of mythology, the goddesses in the form of three elderly women who spin, measure, and then cut the thread of human life.

Even if the characters don’t realise it – and they usually don’t until it is too late – their fates are in her hands.

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NOTES

[1] Eg. Carol Westron’s blog ‘Miss Marple and Miss Silver – a comparison’ (13 Oct 2014) at www.promotingcrime.blogspot.com.  She also has a great little scenario imagining the two ladies meeting in a teashop.

[2]  Agatha Christie, The Tuesday Night Club (1927).

[3]  Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask, 1928.  I refer to this book in my previous blogpost ‘Masks and Murder’.

[4]  Patricia Wentworth, Miss Silver Comes to Stay, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1951, p50f.

[5}  ibid., p107.

[6]  ibid., p104f.