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.