Originally published in 1946 as 本陣殺人事件
English language translation by Louise Heal Kawai first published in 2019
Kosuke Kindaichi #1
Followed by Death on Gokumon Island
In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis around the village.
Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music – death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.
I had been envious of all of my friends based in Britain who were able to get access to The Honjin Murders when it was released there several months ago. Those of us who are Stateside had to wait several months for its US publication date, only adding to my anticipation, as did the recent episode of In GAD We Trust featuring the book’s translator, Louise Heal Kawai. So, could The Honjin Murders live up to its enormous hype as one of the best examples of a Japanese locked room mystery?
The book is presented as a true crime account written by a journalist about events that had taken place in the village of Okamura many years earlier. At the point at which the story starts, those events are distant enough that the grounds of the Ichiyanagi home have become overgrown and some of the buildings have fallen badly into disrepair. The solution to the case is known, though naturally the narrator holds back on providing it until the end of the account.
The mystery concerns the death of the first son of the Ichiyanagi family and his bride on the night of their wedding. In the early hours of the morning a scream is heard followed by the frenzied playing of a koto, a stringed instrument, coming from the annex building in which the young couple were staying. Those who go to check on the couple find that the building is locked and the couple brutally slaughtered inside. Outside a katana is found thrust into the frozen ground in the middle of the garden with no footprints on the snow around it.
The bride’s uncle takes charge and summons a young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who happens to be in the area to come and investigate the crime scene. He has to not only explain how someone was able to commit the murder inside the locked room and get away without leaving any footprints in the snow but also why the crime was committed in the first place.
There are several intriguing lines of inquiry for Kindaichi to pursue. The marriage was unpopular with the Inchiyanagi family who felt that the bride was not of a suitable standing. The son had unexpectedly retired from his academic life yet the reasons were confusing. And then there was the strange three-fingered warrior who was observed in the village asking about the estate.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this book is the short time period in which the investigative phase of the novel takes place. Much of the book is spent describing the events leading up to the death with the actual investigation really being contained within the second half of the novel. While the means by which the crime is committed is technically complex, Kindaichi seems to quickly assess the scene and the investigation is restricted to a handful of interviews and physical examination of the space.
The most obvious comparison to make with Kindaichi is Sherlock Holmes. There are some aspects of Kindaichi’s character that seem to directly reference the Great Detective, such as his history of substance abuse and his unusual status as a private consulting detective. Both men seem to instinctively read a crime scene and make judgments of those they interact with, though I would suggest that Kindaichi is a softer, more humane character in his interactions with those other characters.
The narrator clearly admires Kindaichi, though he does not know him. We are aware that he will solve this case but a consequence of this distance is that we never really get inside the detective’s head or get a broader understanding of his character. The focus then falls on the strange series of events which thankfully are intriguing enough to be worthy of that interest but it does mean that I did not put this down feeling attached to the sleuth. While I am keen to read The Inugami Curse, I do not feel particularly attached to Kindaichi yet and will be reading it primarily for the author’s skill at plotting.
On the other hand the journalistic approach does result in a very tight narrative that focuses on the most pertinent points of the investigation. I feel that this works well with this sort of impossible crime tale and it does mean that we can trust that we are being given everything we need to solve the crime.
Of course, having said that I think I should say that I would be surprised if anyone could work out exactly how this particular crime was carried out. The mechanics of the murder are extremely complex and while I think they are well described, I certainly had no clue how the murder could have been worked.
The question of who did it and why however is much fairer. There are plenty of clues, some physical and some psychological, to point to the guilty party and their motivation to kill. While I was not surprised by those aspects of the explanation, I felt that the reasons given were quite satisfying.
I will say however that the impossible crime aspects of the novel are perhaps the least rewarding parts of the book. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the mystery or its resolution, but I can imagine that readers may well find the explanation rather convoluted and too complex to easily imagine. Certainly I did not come close, though I must admit that I am not a reader who can easily visualize a scene, even when it is described well (as is the case here). I found that I had some sympathy for a character in the novel who is an avid reader of locked room mysteries who laments stories that rely on mechanical explanations, a charge which I feel can be fairly levelled at this book.
Still, while I may not have been able to effectively play at armchair sleuth I did enjoy following along with this investigation and observing how Kindaichi is able to piece the details of the crime together. His account of what happened, while quite far-fetched, does feel like it ties up all of the important plot points well.
In my opinion, Yokomizo creates an interesting mix of characters and there are several moments in the plot that I found quite striking and, in at least one case, quite chilling. There is one strand of the story that seems to infer the supernatural and while I can assure readers that the real explanation of the crime is quite rational, I felt that those aspects of the plot were introduced quite effectively.
I already had a copy of the author’s The Inugami Curse on preorder and I am happy to report that I do not regret that decision. This story had enough striking images and ideas to capture my imagination and I found the explanation of the crime to be both inventive and quite compelling. Is it a perfect impossible crime story? Perhaps not, but I do think it is interesting enough to be worth your attention if you are a fan of the subgenre.
The Verdict: An interesting murder story told in a journalistic style. The murder mechanism is a little much for me, but Yokomizo’s choice of killer and exploration of their motivations are excellent.
3 thoughts on “The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai”
Completely agree – it’s a good read but the solution is somewhat convoluted to say the least…
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I’m surprised so many people had trouble with visualizing the locked room-trick. Sure, it’s a bit on the technical side, but help of the map it was not too difficult to imagine the scene. Whether, or not, it would have worked is another question all together. I loved how the detective novels that were mentioned in the story worked as an exam-like clue, which only works if you understand (not memorized) their solutions.
Anyway, glad you still liked it!
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It was one aspect of it I struggled to imagine though I understood the basic idea. As I noted, I am not the most visual of readers to begin with. I actually had no difficulty at all imagining the rest of the scene though – the descriptions are clear and this is, as you note, a story where the map is helpful.