The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Reviewed by Harriet

Honjin Murders Seishi Yokomizo Pushkin

This delightful reprint from Pushkin Press is widely viewed as one of Japan’s greatest murder mysteries. Amazingly this is its first English translation, expertly done by Louise Heal Kawai. First published in 1946, it recounts events said to have taken place in Okamura, a small village, in the winter of 1937.

The story is told by a narrator who presents himself as Yokomizo, the writer of the book. That is to say, he starts by describing a visit he made to the house where the ‘gruesome murder’ he is going to write about was committed. People in the village recognised him, he says, and were keen to tell him details of the crime. He’s immediately fascinated, because the case is clearly an example of something that has always interested him – it’s a ‘Locked Room Mystery’.

The events take place in a cold midwinter, in a high-class inn known as a honjin. The family involved are the rich upper class Ichiyanagis – there’s a useful Dramatis Personae list at the beginning of the book in case anyone gets confused by the Japanese names. It’s the night after the wedding of one of the sons of the family, Kenzo, who has just married young beautiful Katzuko.  Deep snow has fallen. The inhabitants of the house are woken up by a terrible scream, and the person sent to investigate the house they were staying in finds both of them brutally stabbed to death. What’s more, the house is completely locked up with no indication of how the murderer got in or out. There are mysterious bloody prints showing a hand with only three fingers, and outside in the snow is what appears to be the murder weapon, a bloodied Japanese sword.

The local police are flummoxed by this mystery, so the bride’s uncle contacts a friend of his, the young and decidedly eccentric private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. When the celebrated detective appears at the house, everyone is shocked by his ‘decidedly scruffy’ appearance and his ‘bird’s nest hair’. He talks with a stammer, and has some unusual methods of deduction, all of which needless to say prove in the end to provide a somewhat bizarre but ultimately satisfying solution to the problem of who committed the murder and how it was done.

Yokomizo was an avid admirer of Western detective fiction, and early on in the novel he provides a list of books that have inspired him. In doing so he also vividly sets the scene for the room where the murder was committed:

Out of all these books, it’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room [by Gaston Leroux] that bears the closest resemblance, at least as regards setting and atmosphere. In that story the crime scene was a room with yellow wallpaper; in the Honjin Murder Case, the columns and beams, ceiling and rain shutters were all painted in red ochre. Red ochre wasn’t an unusual hue for houses in this region – in fact the house I was living in had also been painted in that colour. The difference was that my house was extremely old, and the red lustre had faded to a dark brownish sheen. On the other hand the room where the murder took place had just been repainted, and must have been gleaming with its fresh coat of red. The tatami mat flooring and the fusuma sliding doors that divided the main rooms were brand new too, and there was a byobu folding screen decorated with gold leaf. The only unpleasant sight must have been the couple lying there, soaked in the crimson of  their own blood.

There’s so much to enjoy in this classic novel. This is a properly perplexing mystery with lots of enjoyable detail. There’s the sinister masked man who has been seen hanging round the village, and whose three-fingered hand seems to point his way as the perpetrator. But who is he, and what could his motive have been? The family dynamics are well delineated, especially the tensions between the siblings. I particularly liked the young sister, who at seventeen seems to have retained the mental age of a much younger girl. She has a personal drama of her own to deal with, as her beloved kitten is found dead on the day of the wedding – its burial place will prove to provide an important clue in the murder case. The details of life in 1930s Japan are fascinating: it comes over as a country divided between the ancient rituals that inform the wedding and its preparations and one in which modern methods of detection including fingerprints have taken root.

But modern methods are not what ultimately solve the murder. The solution to how the crime could have been committed in such a firmly locked room – a solution almost ridiculous in its fiendish complexity – is entirely the outcome of Kosuke Kindaichi’s brilliant brain. Although the family and the police are initially put off by his strange appearance and bearing, he proves to have deductive powers that rival those of Holmes or Poirot. This was his first introduction to the reading public, but Wikipedia tells me he went on to appear in a total of 77 novels. Here’s hoping Pushkin Press will bring out some more translations – this one is certainly excellent.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and loves a classic locked room mystery.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders (Pushkin Press, 2019). 978-1782275008, 192pp., paperback original.

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