The Honjin Murders
by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai
Originally published 1946, English translation published 2019


I picked this up while browsing in one of my favorite bookstores, not knowing anything about it. I was simply intrigued by the idea of a classic period murder mystery transposed to Japan. What I discovered was a well-crafted story with a really unexpected ending, and an almost 4th-wall breaking homage to Western Golden Age detective fiction and the locked-room mystery.

Author Seishi Yokomizo started out writing historical fiction (especially historical detective fiction, à la Judge Dee), before breaking into the puzzle-based murder mystery genre with The Honjin Murders in 1946. The novel won the first Mystery Writers of Japan award when it appeared, and The Guardian named the 2019 English translation one of the best crime novels of the year. It’s the first of seventy-seven novels featuring the private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Yokomizo’s success provided a model for many Japanese mystery authors who came after him.

It’s strange that it took over seven decades before someone decided to start translating the Kindaichi series, but I’m glad that they did. And I hope they translate more of Yokomizo’s work, too.

The Story

In 1937, Kenzo Ichiyanagi, the oldest son of a prominent family, marries Katsuko Kubo, the orphaned niece of a lower class but wealthy farmer. The night after the wedding, the couple are found dead, brutally mutilated by a katana kept in their bedroom. Their two-room house was completely locked, with no footprints leading up to it. Katsuko’s heartbroken uncle Ginzo calls in his protégé, the scruffy but up-and-coming private detective Kosuke Kindaichi, to help solve the crime.

The narrator of the novel (presumably, Yokomizo himself) is a mystery writer, and the novel purports to be an account of the research he did on the Honjin case. The detective, Kindaichi, and one of the suspects (Kinzo’s brother Saburo) are both crime fiction enthusiasts, who at one point hold a two-page conversation about locked-room puzzles, comparing the techniques of Gaston Leroux and John Dickson Carr. This is shortly after Kindaichi encountered Saburo’s mystery collection:

The collection comprised every book of mystery or detective fiction ever published in Japan…. There was…Arthur Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin series, and every translated work that the publishers Hakubunkan and Heibonsha had ever released.Then there was the Japanese section:…Ruiko Kuroiwa…Edogawa Ranpo, Foboku Kozakai… all crammed in together. And then…there were the original, untranslated works of Ellery Queen, Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Agatha Christie…. It was a magnificent sight: an entire library of detective novels.

Having established his locked-room mystery, detective fiction chops, Yokomizo proceeds to feed his readers a whole lot of red herrings, along with a plentiful supply of enigmatic clues. At the end, he rewards us with a spectacular, truly over-the-top solution to the locked-room conundrum. Quite ingenious! And a grim, disturbing motive for the murder, too. Yikes.

I devoured the book in a day (I don’t, always), and I can definitely see why the novel did so well in Japan when it came out. I can also see why the translation has generated a good bit of praise now. And I am always in favor of having access to more great genre literature in translation.

But, I have to confess: while I liked the book, and the solution is genius, it didn’t wow me somehow. Something felt missing. And I couldn’t pin down what it was. At first, I thought it was the language, which was a bit dry. And that was part of it, but maybe not all. To explain it, I’ll have to make a little digression….

Narrative Styles in Detective Fiction

First, a disclaimer: I’m not a Golden Age detection nerd, or any kind of crime fiction nerd, so I can’t claim that my reading is all-encompassing, or even, perhaps, terribly extensive. But in what I have read, I’ve seen a strong link between crime fiction sub-genres and narrative voice.

First person, detective as narrator. This voice is common in noir: think Farewell My Lovely, Red Harvest, The Thin Man, the Continental Op. The detective is the protagonist. And while I think I have read modern cozy mysteries presented in this voice, I can’t recall any Golden Age/classic ratiocination style mysteries narrated by the detective, other than one or two Sherlock Holmes short stories.

First person, “Watson” as narrator. The prototype style of Golden Age ratiocination stories and their predecessors: C. Auguste Dupin and his nameless companion, Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Madelyn Mack and Nora Noraker, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. In most stories of this kind, I would consider the “Watson” to be the protagonist, albeit sometimes a passive one.

Third person limited, from the point of view of an interested party (not the detective). Sometimes, the point of view shifts among multiple characters, none of whom are the detective. Many of Agatha Christie’s post-Hastings Poirot and Miss Marple stories are in this style. Often (but not always) the interested party or parties also play Watson-like roles, and they (or at least one of them) are the protagonists.

Third person, emotionally sympathetic to the detective The third person view point can be omniscient, or shift between characters. This is fairly common in Golden Age detective stories, too: H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune stories; Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter; Agatha Christie’s Satterthwaite and Quin (I consider Satterthwaite the detective). The sympathetic tilt of the authorial voice arguably makes the detective the protagonist.

Third person omniscient, emotionally distant from the characters. Police procedurals tend to be written in this voice. Generally, there’s no clear protagonist, except possibly the entire investigating squad.

And that was the lack I felt in The Honjin Murders: there was no clear protagonist.

While we the readers saw the thoughts and feelings of many characters, the impersonal voice didn’t encourage us to take anyone’s side. Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo was probably the closest to a sympathetic point-of-view character, and he played a minor Watson role as well; but he doesn’t appear in the novel enough to make him feel like the true protagonist.

Nor do we get much feeling for Kindaichi’s character either. I just finished re-reading The Labours of Hercules, a Poirot short story collection (third person omniscient, sympathetic); the stories convey a clear sense of Poirot’s vanity, his sympathy for the working class, his romantic streak and his sense of justice. Kindaichi in The Honjin Murders is scruffy, easy to get along with, and scratches his head a lot. The level of characterization isn’t as thorough; we have no access to his interior thoughts. Kindaichi feels more like a major supporting character, not a protagonist.

In other words, the novel gives us a classic murder mystery but feels like a police procedural, and the effect is a bit jarring.

So what’s the verdict?

As a puzzle-mystery, The Honjin Murders is interesting and ingenious. As a story, it managed to engross, but not quite satisfy me. But I liked it enough that I’m willing to try the next book. Perhaps now that my expectations about style have been properly set, I’ll be better able to appreciate the series.

Hard-core Golden Age locked room mystery buffs will enjoy reading the discussions about and references to classic mystery novels. I think they’ll have fun trying to work out the solution, too; I’m fairly sure the narrative is fair-play.

So if you are a Golden Age mystery enthusiast who’s curious to see your beloved genre in a new cultural setting, do check out The Honjin Murders.

One thought on “Reading The Honjin Murders

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