In that vast, open sea of genre fiction, detective stories exist on an island that I’ve never really visited. Not because this island is full of traps and dark alleyways, and the murder rate is alarmingly high, but simply because we all have genres that we gravitate towards and detective stories were never mine.
And so, The Honjin Murders — the first book in a legendary series of Shōwa period Japanese detective stories by Seishi Yokomizo — is quite a place to properly jump into the genre. It’s also quite a spectacular novel.
Seishi Yokomizo, who died in Tokyo back in 1981, carved out a real legacy with his series of detective stories. In the character of Kosuke Kindaichi – first introduced here in The Honjin Murders (originally published in 1946) – Yokomizo invented his own Sherlock Holmes.
Now, at last, what many consider the best Japanese detective story has arrived in English in the form of a punchy, thrilling translation by Louise Heal Kawai.
This ‘locked room murder mystery’ is a unique take on the formula made iconic by major Western writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Gaston Leroux. It takes place in a fixed location: the Ichiyanagi household in the village of Okamura.
The Ichiyanagi family are a proud, wealthy, high-class family, and one of their sons, Kenzo, is due to marry the young Katsuko. On the night of their wedding, they are murdered by a mysterious assailant who flees into the night, leaving nothing but a handprint and a bloodied katana in the snow.
It’s a short novel of less than two hundred pages, and its first half is very much engaged with telling the story of the wedding and the murder, as well as establishing the supporting cast of characters exactly as much as needs be – enough to be familiar with their names and their roles within the family, but not so much that we know each of their backstories.
Yokomizo proves here to be a master of pacing and setting: he knows what is important and what isn’t. He cuts the fat and keeps a sharp focus on the story and events. The mystery of The Honjin Murders is, of course, finding out whodunnit. Who killed the newlyweds; is it someone we know or a stranger; what is their motivation; how did they get in and out?
While the setup to all of this is just engaging enough to keep us rapt and turning the page, the story really comes into its own when our necessarily enigmatic and eccentric young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, arrives on the scene. He is brought in by the murdered bride’s uncle, and Kindaichi proves to be a suitable fill-in for Holmes or Poirot. He’s abnormally skilled at deduction, oddly dressed, has a few quirks such as a stammer and a wild enthusiasm.
In short, he is a delightfully charming detective who fits the role and never becomes overly frustrating. Instead, as the pacing picks up, Kindaichi almost seems to turn the page for us, not allowing us the choice to look away.
What perhaps sells us on The Honjin Murders even more than Kindaichi does is the setting and how it is crafted and presented to us. There’s an enormous theatricality to The Honjin Murders. The way it is read to us here makes it a dream for a potential stage adaptation.
There is the single setting of the honjin (an Edo period inn for the upper classes), and the cold, dark, yet literarily romantic snow covering the stage.
There is an eclectic cast (even introduced in a play-like character list at the start of the book), as well as five very clearly delineated acts. And while The Honjin Murders isn’t a play, the theatrical nature of this book creates a very particular atmosphere which falls somewhere between camp and melodrama.
Despite this, the characters take the story and its events extremely seriously, but there’s also the added element of the narrator.
The entire story is told to us by the author himself, who explains at the beginning that this is a ‘true story’ – that he visited the scene after the crime was solved, and that he talked with witnesses to gather their testimonies and to turn them into this book.
Rather than this being a novel in the traditional sense, it is instead an author explaining his novel to us. This breaking of the fourth wall is again what makes for such wonderful theatricality. The first comparison that sprung to my mind as I read on was, in fact, Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Is The Honjin Murders, however, a truly good detective and murder mystery story? Well, that entirely depends on how you like to read them.
Some readers desperately attempt to work out the solution to the crime and figure out whodunnit long before the end, like the novel is a puzzle box. Others simply go along for the ride. I fall into the latter category and yet there was more than one red herring which I caught onto immediately.
While I didn’t anticipate all of the reveals that make up the final act, not every twist and turn had the impact that was intended. This, at least to me, doesn’t matter.
The fun that’s to be had with this book is in the interactions between the characters and the setting, as well as simply sitting back and enjoying the detective character of Kosuke Kindaichi with all of his eccentricities.
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What’s also stirringly impressive about this story is that it does have a subtly political edge to it. There is a theme that is gently uncovered towards the end of the book which frames it in a political light. The Honjin Murders might be read as a rather scathing commentary on the rigid systems put in place, not only in Japanese society, but in cultures around the world, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
While it’s impossible to discuss them without giving the ending away, the theme of class, hierarchy, and familial responsibility within Japanese society is certainly there to be picked apart and mulled over long after the story ends. This really added a density to the tale that was unexpected but adroitly inserted into the story.
The Honjin Murders is a wickedly fun time. Its short length, quirky cast of characters, engaging mystery, and theatrical setting and plot make for a fantastic murder mystery tale. While it isn’t a revelation of a story, it is a seriously clever one. The balancing of theatrical components with a surprisingly weighty political theme that gently unravels towards the conclusion makes for some intense reading.
The beauty of this book is that it’s never anything less than fun from beginning to end, but it is also smartly political, and the theatrical elements – the fourth wall-breaking, the static setting, the large cast of eclectic characters – make for a truly engrossing novel. This is, in short, a superb winter read.