#632: The Honjin Murders (1946) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans. Louise Heal Kawai 2019]

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After years of occasional titles like The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) by Akimitsu Takagi trickling through the East-West translation gap, it seems English-speaking audiences might be getting more classic Eastern honkaku.  The shin honkaku translations brought to us by Locked Room International have highlighted the ingenuity in works coming out of Japan, China, and surrounds during the 1980s and 1990s, an era when the Western crime novel was rather more focussed on character and procedure, and so the puzzle-rich seam of GAD-era honkaku titles might finally get more attention.  And the first non-LRI novel to come across is one that was greeted with much excitement.

Honjin Satsujin Jiken (1946), translated here as The Honjin Murders, marks the debut appearance of Seishi Yokomizo’s hugely influential amateur sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi, and has remained to the English-speaking world something of a rumour wrapped in enigma.  A dazzling-sounding puzzle involving the slaughter of a couple on their wedding night and the vanishment of their killer from the locked, snow-surrounded house with nary a footprint to show for it, it’s a light, fast novel that benefits from the brevity of its setup and never tries in its 181 pages to be much more than a grand, puzzling time.  Clearly steeped in the Western detective tradition — The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908), The Teeth of the Tiger (1914), The Kennel Murder Case (1933), The Plague Court Murders (1934), and Murder Among the Angells (1932) all get a mention on page 2 — the joy here is in seeing those principles applied in a culturally rich milieu that seems to sacrifice nothing in order to fit in.

And so we have the marriage of Kenzo, scion of the wealthy Ichiyanagi family, who has moved heaven and earth to be allowed to wed for love rather than status, his bride Katsuko coming from the less socially-impressive Kubo clan.  In the run up to the happy event, a mysterious masked stranger sporting three fingers on one hand will arrive at the Ichiyanagi residence and leave a note for Kenzo, before vanishing into the night.  And when the madcap strumming of a koto is heard, preceding a blood-curdling scream and the discovery of the bride and groom slain in their annexe with the sword that killed them stuck in the snow outside, things haven’t even gotten half as weird as they’re about to.  Because the annexe is locked and bolted in every regard, and the snow surrounding the house shows no footprints.  And then Suzuko, Kenzo’s child-like teenage sister, whose innocence means that she “never tells a deliberate lie”, will insist that she has seen a three-fingered man walking the grounds…

Frankly, it’s mental, and possibly the most hilariously good time I’ve had for ages.  Narrated by a nameless, all-seeing unknown some years after the event, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of the relevant actions and people — “I really don’t want to bore my readers,” we’re told, which is fine by me — as well as a sprinkle of HIBK (“As you will discover later, this would prove crucial to the mystery”) and just enough incident to stop it feeling too much like a textbook, such as the tradition of the distant relative who “got blind drunk and started ranting incoherently” thankfully being observed here as well as at every wedding I’ve ever attended.  A diagram of the crime scene helps highlight just how compact and fabulously tight this problem is, and then with everyone at maximum bafflement “a certain young drug addict by the name of Kosuke Kindaichi” is summoned in the hope of enlightenment.

Kindaichi is an odd character, because we know he went on to be hugely influential in the genre and yet here Yokomizo obviously doesn’t know that and so we get at best a tracing of some loose ideas — he’s scruffy, and once did unspecified things in solving a case to earn a favourable reputation in such matters — with some Sherlockiana thrown in for genre purposes.  Most of all, he reminded me of John Gaunt from The Bowstring Murders (1933) by Carter Dickson: he turns up halfway through with these non-specific stories trailing around him, makes some observations, knows where to go to find the relevant things, and then summarises the clever plot that has been unfolding around him.  There’s no real detection as such, and it’s even arguable that the key clue is withheld, so that, even though the resulting patterns are next-level clever, you don’t necessarily ever really feel a part of what unfolds.

However, things are helped in this regard by a frankly magnificent translating job by Louise Heal Kawai that renders our narrator’s chatty tone expertly and captures some wonderful moments of heart-stopping drama:

Ginzo was blind to the sight and deaf to the sound.  His face was twisted in sorrow.  And concealed deep beneath that sorrow was a deep sense of regret and anger.

There’s maybe one false note — the use of the word “stunner” to describe Katsuko feels, to me, a little out of place — but it’s a mellifluous translation that at once feels like a translation and yet also glides by far too easily to possibly be one.  Interesting, too, the few social notes that Yokomizo drops in throughout, such as the hint at shifting social structures following the Second World War and the passing reference to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that would at time of publication have doubtless been a gaping national wound.

How much this was Yokomizo trying to write a Westernised novel of detection I suppose I’ll never know, but there are touches aplenty to hint that it’s a very deliberate effort. Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Agatha Christie all get a late name-check, the bloody handprints around the crime scene feel like a deliberate nod to the Gaston Leroux title mentioned above, and the Amateur Sleuth archetype is clearly something that needs explaining to an audience unused to such ideas:

It’s hard to believe that in a high-profile murder case such as this one, someone from outside the police force would be permitted to wander around the crime scene in this way, but somehow Kosuke Kindaichi managed it.

With the second Kindaichi novel Inugamike No Ichizuko (1951) also available from Pushkin under the new title of The Inugami Curse, it’s to be hoped that more Yokomizo will make its way to us and we will see him develop as an author and cleave his own meaningful place in the pantheon.  After years of lamenting that I was born in the wrong era because I missed out on so much classic detection, I’m hopeful that the raft of honkaku I’m anticipating proves me wrong.  This is a wonderful place to start, and gives us much to be excited about for future translations.  Kudos to all involved, now keep ’em coming!

34 thoughts on “#632: The Honjin Murders (1946) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans. Louise Heal Kawai 2019]

      • *77 is the number of Kindaichi stories including the short stories. The short stories are… kinda there? I have read a few of the collections but i can hardly remember anything about them (except for the fact that a lot of these stories are actually set in the modern city, which was really weird coming from all those novels set on remote islands or villages deep in the mountains, all steeped in outdated traditions and beliefs).

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        • Oh, yeah, I’m an idiot — should have considered the short stories in that total. So Yokomizo is a bit of a Christie, then, in creating hugely influential novels and largely forgettable short pieces? Hey, we can’t all be great at everything 🙂

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            • Oh, I’m certainly not claiming otherwise. While I love the Quin stories (though their plots are largely irrelevant; it’s their ambiance I savour), no other Christie short stories have made any kind of impression on me, which certainly follows the line of your statement.

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      • The spines to the two books might give a clue?

        Having just got a copy of “Murder in the Crooked House” and put it next to Shimada’s other book from Pushkin Vertigo “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” I am hoping that another three of his will be required to complete the “V” logo which has been started on the spines of the first two books.

        Maybe there is something similar with the Yokomizo’s?

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        • Huh, how about that? There’s no csuch piecemeal image on the Yokomizo spines that I can see — just the great motif of “a thing sticking out of a circle” that’s already on the cover, with the same image replicated in miniature.

          I love these covers. I have asked Anna Morrison, the designer, if she’d be willing to do another Cover Stars post, but I appreciate that such things are dependent on the availability of people to fit a pro bono task amid their paid jobs. However, I remain hopeful…

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  1. In a way, this first Kindaichi novel is a tad different from most of the other stories that follow, in the sense that fewer of them revolve around a classic trope like the locked room murder. Yokomizo’s Kindaichi stories have become a trope in mystery fiction on their own in Japan, with dark, unsettling stories focusing on murders that revolve around motives born out of twisted relations between characters because of traditional (outdated) social structures and traditions, often set in remote locations (old-fashioned villages in the middle of nowhere etc.) Elements that are also present in this novel of course, but he dives a lot deeper in those themes in subsequent novels with some really twisted motives (and less emphasis on crazy locked room tricks. They don’t actually appear that often in his work).

    It’s interesting to see this work as part of Yokomizo’s professional career as a writer though (note he was also an editor, most famously Edogawa Rampo’s editor), as it is such a break with what he did before. Before the war, his own output was more like horror and “detective” stories set in the Edo period. Honjin, and The Butterfly Murder Case (released in the same year or perhaps the year after, different detective) on the other hand are great examples of the puzzle plot mystery.

    As for more honkaku coming… *whistles innocently*

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    • The notion of the outdated social structures and expectations was what really came through here — the peasants no longer doffing their caps deferentially to their ‘betters’, and how the modern attitude taken to what turns out to be the motive jars so starkly with that being the motive. I’m pleased to think Yokomizo continues to work this through his future plots, because it’s a particular fascination of mine when looking at books from this era.

      As for “As for more honkaku coming…”…if you think we’re letting you stop now after the great work you’ve done to date, you’re in for a rude shock!

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  2. Lovely review. I knew you’d like this one. I’m eager to read you opinion of The Inugami Clan — or rather Curse, in this new translation. It was released last week over in your part of the world. Did you get a copy of that one too? I have a much older edition and reviewed it what seems like ages ago though it was only in 2011. There is sure to be a Yokomizo revival with these two excellent books in reprints now available for a wide audience.

    Please allow for the intrusion of the Usage Police. Um… “vanishment” ? Isn’t vanishing a better choice in this context? Better yet — “disappearance”! I don’t think I’d ever use “vanishment” even if a variety of dictionaries tell me it’s a legitimate word. It sounds archaic and wrong.

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    • Ha, I wasn’t even sure “vanishment” was a word, to be honest. I just like it, thought I might have a neologism on my hands 🙂 Bit like the (pretentious, I know) way I use “clewing” rather than “cluing” (or “clueing”?) — no real reason except my brain enjoys the shape of it.

      The Inugami Curse isn’t a new translation, it’s simply a reissue of The Inugami Clan that you already have, translated by Yumiko Yamazaki. I’m not entirely sure why the title has been changed, but any curiosity about that is overwhelmed by it being available for sensible money. And, yes, I have my copy — pre-ordered it some time ago. Expect a review in due course, I’m very excited.

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      • Vanishment sounds like one of those old-time patent medicines, loaded with arsenic, guaranteed to cure you of any pesky relative stubbornly clinging to life.

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  3. How many shin honkaku do we have now? 10 or so? It’s exciting to know that’s just a drop in the bucket if these continue to get attention. I’m currently reading Decagon House and there were a bunch of untranslated works alluded to in the foreword that had me drooling.

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    • Let’s see, I make it:

      From LRI
      1. The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
      2. The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa
      3. The Ginza Ghost by Keikichi Osaka
      4. The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko
      5. Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin [yes, not technically shin honkaku, my apologies]

      From Pushkin
      6. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
      7. Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shiimada
      8. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
      9. The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo

      Plus
      10. Murder in the Red Chamber Ashibe Taku

      So, yes, exactly ten. Plus the likes of:

      The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
      The Summer of the Ubume by Natsuhiko Kyogoku

      …and various works by Kyotaro Nishimura and Siecho Matsumoto which have been translated, but can be tough to track down for, like, money most of us can afford to part with. The market has been drip-fed for a while now, let’s just hope there’s more of a flow to it on the way…!

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        • Oh, true — didn’t realise there were some more recent translations. I’m specifically holding out for an affordable copy of Points and Lines…though “holding out for” is now more sort of “resining myself to the inevitable unavailability of” 🙂

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          • You are welcome to my neat paperback of POINTS AND LINES. Just say the word and I’ll send it overseas via the swiftest method possible. Joe will be elated to be have this household free of one more book. He would, of course, prefer to be rid of at least 800 books at one time, but its very slow going these days.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed this one, JJ, but do you really think the clueing was iffy? I found Yokomizo’s approach to clueing here fascinating and prodigious (see my review). Surprisingly insightful for someone’s first stab at writing a grand detective story.

    Hopefully, Prison Gate Island is the next Yokomizo to be translated!

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    • I feel that the clewing is arguably shifty in two respects:

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      Firstly, the presence of the koto string wrapped around the water wheel just feels like it comes a little out of nowhere — yes, the scythe in the tree implies something has been cut, but Kindaichi pretty much walks up to the water wheel and finds the string without us even being told it happened…I think partly because Yokomizo felt this would give a lot away and deprive him of the big reveal of the method.

      Secondly, the diary entries, where it says after they’ve been sorted something along the lines of “clearly these last two had been written in a different pen” to underline how unrelated they are to the others…and, like, how are we supposed to tell that from printed text in a book?

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      Neither really bothers me as such, but given they’re both quite key in the interpretations put on events, I’d suggest they’re mildly problematic from a fairness perspective. And, like, the rest of the book is superb, so these are minor complaints when put against the success of everything elsewhere.

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  5. Thanks JJ for the review, and I was encouraged by the praise and the strong rating. I feel like I ought to like these Kindaichi Kosuke novels more – since he is the grandfather whom Kindaichi the teenage detective alludes to in the manga. But I read this novel in Chinese, and wasn’t able to fully grasp the complex mechanics behind the locked-room conundrum. I read “Inugami” in English – and felt some ambivalence towards it too. 😞 So maybe I should give “Honjin” another go in English! But not until I complete the new LRI translation that was just released… 🤩

    Anyway, in terms of your list of shin-honkaku novels translated in English, a handful of novels by Keigo Higashino have been released. Granted, not all of those operate strictly within the puzzle genre conventions – but generally he is seen to be a key player in the field?

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    • So maybe I should give “Honjin” another go in English

      Or, maybe Yokomizo’s just not your type of author. I’ve struggled with books recently that most other people seem to love (keep it to yourself, but I cannot get on with Brian Flynn…), sometimes stuff just doesn’t work for whatever reason.

      As for Higashino…yeah, maybe. I’ve only read Salvation of a Saint and Devotion of Suspect X, and I feel the former plays more closely with the puzzle expectations I (perhaps falsely) have for shin honkaku than the latter. Or maybe that’s just because I liked Salvation much more than Suspect.

      Is there anything else of his that does a puzzle-ish plot? Should probably check him out again at some point…

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      • There is an locked room/impossible crime in MALICE. I don’t remember how it was all solved or if its a new gimmick for locked rooms. What I loved about that book (my favorite of all the Higashino books I’ve read so far) was its treatment of the neverending problem of bullies in our word.

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        • Malice technically doesn’t contain a locked room. The blurb implies it does for whatever reason, but it’s actually an impossible alibi problem at best and it’s not the focus of the book. But Malice is an excellent little book that is also a favorite of the Higashino’s that I’ve read. (Although I’m compelled to like Suspect more, sorry JJ!) I should probably re-read it, if just because I think either I was too thick for the anti-bullying commentary and/or (this is more likely) thought it was going to do or say something totally different, because I don’t recall much about it.

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          • Well, since we’re talking about Higashino…

            Of the novels that have been translated, the Detective Gallileo ones are, I’d say, the closest to your more traditional detective novels, where the focus is pinpointing the culprit’s trick. The weakest of the three is, in my mind, definitely “A Midsummer Night’s Equation.” Ended up being a bit too drawn-out for my tastes.

            His other novels vary, both in approach and structure.

            “Malice,” I would argue, is more about unravelling the whydunnit. I remember liking it quite a lot; and I say that as someone that definitely prioritizes locked rooms. I don’t want to really comment too much about it, it’s definitely best to go into it as blindly as possible, if you ever decide to.
            “Newcomer” is basically structured like a set of short stories that the detective stumbles into as he’s trying to figure out who killed the victim and why. Each story does have its purpose and reveals important bits of the timeline, but the focus, overall, isn’t necessarily on the crime investigation. I also wouldn’t really call it fair play, and I’m pretty sure it never really tried to be that.
            “The Name of the Game is Kidnapping” starts out a bit wonky translation-wise, but is by the end a pretty solid suspense novel. Simply put, it’s about a man trying to successfully mind game a fake kidnapping. I didn’t mind it; it was interesting seeing the plan come together.
            “A Journey Under the Midnight Sun” is… long. It’s very long; that’s the best way I can summarize it. It features a murder, but the investigation is very brief, and most of the book is focused around the lives of the two people tied to the investigation and the troubles they get themselves into after the fact. The scope is pretty epic, spanning decades. Given your blog, I think this one is the least up your alley, but I still personally enjoyed it.

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            • See, the way you describe Midnight Sun makes me want to jump into that one first…yes, I am contrary. But I’m also a big, big fan of standard plot shapes and tropes being approached in non-standard ways. I’m only starting to realise this now, as I reach the edge of the core of GAD and find experimental pulp, self-published, and edge-of-genre stuff increasingly to my liking. Expect lots of self-examination in the months and years ahead… 🙂

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          • I think I was mis-sold Higashino — told these baffling, brilliant problems were front and centre, and so that was the expectation I went in with. As more feedback gathers about his actual mode of operation, I can see me returning to him with a clearer expectation and — hopefully — a better appreciation of what he does well.

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        • The two Higashino books I’ve read are notable for how they’ve used the backdrop of a crime to explore possibly uncommon elements of the society in which they’re based. The actions of Suspect X, for instance, are superbly realised in his character. While I didn’t really care for the resolution, I can’t deny the skill with which everything around that core plot was worked in — it’s a very cleverly constructed book.

          I’m pleased to hear, therefore, that this is an aspect of his writing that continues elsewhere. All I need now is the time to read them…

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  6. “but I cannot get on with B???? ????n”

    Gasp – and he won “reprint of the year” at Kate’s blog, if I recall correctly? 😱 I confess I read “Murders near Mapleton” expecting to be blown away – but left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. 🤫 I’m retaining high hopes for “Peacock’s Eye” though.

    In any case, my lips are sealed… 🤐

    “Is there anything else of his that does a puzzle-ish plot?”

    I can see why you hesitate to include Keigo Higashino according to the rules of shin-honkaku – in that the works chosen for translation into English don’t naturally sit well alongside puzzle-oriented traditions. “Suspect X” drew some flak on the basis of eluding constraints of fair-play – though I do think some hints and clues are there – “Salvation” is an inverted mystery that wants to be coy about it, while “Malice” dabbles with psychological suspense. I can’t quite remember if “Newcomer” is fair play – but my memory suggests to me that the human drama is greater than the puzzle.

    The works I’ve read that are most typically golden age have yet to be translated into English; I read them in Chinese. “Murder at the White Pony Hill Manor” had a locked room murder that was part of a nursery rhyme serial killing. Higashino’s first work that brought him fame, “After Class”, plays on certain tropes and twists that were used by Christie.

    But yes, quite a few of his other, famous, works evolve outside of the constraints of puzzle plot writing.

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    • Murder at the White Pony Hill Manor is such an awesome title — man, I hope we get that in English for the title alone, never mind the fact that it’s a locked room.

      I’m not surprised there’s less of a puzzle focus to his works in the main, though. I can believe that’s just a general international trend, and there’s surely going to be some consideration for what sells well in international markets inside such a popular genre as crime fiction. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, since Higashino deals with the surrounding elements of his plots so well, it’s lovely to think he’s growing himself in that direction. More power to him!

      But, if we could have MatWPHM in English at some point, that would also be wonderful 🙂

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