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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!