The Honjin Murders (1948): Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 1

Strange times. I can only hope that none of you or your loved ones have been directly affected by coronavirus, and I send virtual hugs out across the ether to all of you. I don’t intend to dwell on the present madness, though: I’m here, writing this, because I’d rather forget about it for a few minutes, and I hope you’re here for the same reason. Let’s go somewhere else together instead. Somewhere like provincial Japan in the late 1930s: a world still struggling to free itself from the legacies of feudal hierarchies, in which a shocking crime offers a brilliant young detective the chance to make his literary debut. I didn’t recognise Kosuke Kindaichi’s name, but he has a devoted following in Japan and appeared in a whole series of Yokomizo’s novels after this, his first appearance, in 1946. Unfortunately, The Honjin Murders (deftly translated by Louise Heal Kawai) is at present one of only two Kindaichi novels available in English; the other, The Inugami Curse, is also available from Pushkin Vertigo. Let’s hope that these two books are successful and encourage Pushkin to get the rest translated, because on the basis of The Honjin Murders they’re going to be mind-scrambling, very entertaining classic crime stories.

The place: Okayama Prefecture. The time: November 1937. The Ichiyanagi family once ran an elegant honjin or upmarket inn for imperial couriers and noble travellers in feudal times. Now their honjin has become their home: a comfortable but isolated mansion, in which the new generation of Ichiyanagi are trying to combine modern attitudes with the deeply ingrained values of the past. Happier times are on the cards, because the middle-aged heir Kenzo – a reserved scholar – has finally decided to marry. Determined to find a woman with intelligence, he has settled on Katsuko, a well-educated schoolteacher from a modest background. While the bride’s qualities aren’t in doubt, Kenzo’s family are horrified by her low birth – but it’s now too late to do anything about it. The wedding day comes and the family gathers, with Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo, to celebrate the ceremony. The newlyweds stay up most of the night drinking and mingling with the family’s tenants, as is customary, and then they go to bed. Just a few hours later, the night is split by a horrific scream. When the family break into the locked annexe in which the bride and groom were to spend the night, they find the newlyweds slaughtered. There is surely no way in or out, and no footprints in the new snow around the annexe. Who could possibly have wanted to murder these two? And how can a murderer possibly have escaped from a locked room without leaving a single trace?

Inspector Isokawa of the local police is summoned to help. He slowly begins to tease out the relationships between the members of this reserved family, and to pinpoint some of the case’s curiosities. For example, why was the murder accompanied by the music of a koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument (and a favourite instrument of the family). Who could have had a motive to kill Kenzo and Katsuko in such a horrible way? Who is hiding something? The stoical matriarch, Itoko? Kenzo’s younger siblings Saburo, with his fascination for detective novels, or simple Suzuko, grieving for her dead kitten? What of the members of the cadet branch of the family, Ryosuke and Akiko, who also live on site? And who is the mysterious three-fingered man who came to the village shortly before the wedding, asking directions to the Ichiyanagi house? Some gruesome discoveries in the locked room soon make this three-fingered man a figure of particular interest… but Inspector Isokawa’s investigations are about to take an unexpected turn. For Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo has a young friend – an amateur detective, who has already made a name for himself through his brilliant deductions. Determined to solve the mystery, Ginzo sends out the word and soon Kosuke Kindaichi comes to town. He may be scruffy, distracted, excitable and certainly not the poised, respectful figure that you’d expect… but he gets the job done. And Kosuke begins to unravel a remarkable sequence of events that leads to a denouement no one could have predicted.

Now, I’ll be frank: I found the solution so unpredictable that I actually found it hard to accept, but that doesn’t take away from the entertainment factor. What made the book especially enjoyable, for me, was Yokomizo’s endearing geekiness about detective fiction as a genre. Although he’s a writer, telling us a story in that genre, he keeps breaking off to make connections to other classic crime novels – he mentions Agatha Christie, of course, but A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery is a particular favourite. At one point, early in the novel, he playfully lists all the classic crime stories which have some similarity to the story he’s about to tell us, adding – with an undoubted twinkle:

But this real-life case wasn’t quite like any of the above-mentioned. Maybe, just maybe, the killer had read a selection of stories like these, dissected all of the different devices used, then picked out the elements that he needed, constructing his own device…

Yokomizo shares his fascination with the young Saburo, who has managed to amass a dizzying library full of every detective story published in Japan, ‘both domestic and foreign‘, Yokomizo assures us. Fortunately, the bright Kosuke is also something of a devotee. By constantly drawing our attention to the novel’s place in a wider genre of literature, Yokomizo makes a claim for himself as part of a genealogy of crime writers and cheerfully lays out his influences, inspirations and favourites. It makes the story feel rather modern and pleasantly multi-layered: a crime novel, full of digressions about crime novels, written by a fan and surely delivered with a wink and a smile. Yet Yokomizo’s novel has a darkness and a gruesomeness to it that isn’t shared by the other (British) Golden Age novels I’ve read. It is all bound up with the Japanese psyche, especially at that period in history, where people felt trapped between traditional values and the hope of a more open, honest future. It makes for a rather unique feel.

Certainly recommended to those who fancy trying out some classic Japanese fiction to complement the British Library’s burgeoning Crime Classics series. And it also makes an interesting comparison to the modern crime genre in Japanese literature, which often shares its gruesomeness but not its knowing sense of humour. In times like these, we need a bit of escapism, and you might find that Kosuke Kindaichi’s sparkling insights (beautifully translated) are just the thing to distract you from the all-too-gloomy news.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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