A seam of superb Japanese detective novels and short stories have crossed the language barrier in recent years, teaching even the most culturally ignorant of us to tell our honkaku from our shin honkaku. And here to give us a sense of the work involved in making that happen is literary translator Louise Heal Kawai.
You are three weeks away from, but I have just recorded, an episode of In GAD We Trust with a focus on short stories, part of the preparation for which got me reflecting on the works by Baroness Emmuska Orczy about the old man found in the corner of the A.B.C Teashop holding forth on unsolved crimes. And the more I thought about them, the more I wanted to write about them. So here we are.
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 shinhonkaku 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.
I have no specific rule for the order in which I read the books on my TBR, but only in special cases does something immediately jump to the head of the list. The chance to lock horns with French grand pooh-bahs Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac is one such special case: sure, their reputation in the English-speaking world might come from writing the novel that became Alfred Hitckcock’s Vertigo, but for the classic detection and locked room fan there’s plenty of excitement attached to these names through a reputation attained by other ends, too. Separately and together, their titles precede them, and so this is an opportunity to savour.
Some families have all the luck – take the Khardashians, for example, who are universally blessed with charm, intelligence and talent – whereas some miss out altogether. Into this second category would definitely fall the Umezawa clan: not only is patriarch Heikichi found battered to death in his locked art studio, his eldest daughter is then found murdered a few months later and, following that, his six other daughters, step-daughters and nieces all disappear simultaneously and their dismembered bodies are discovered at various intervals buried in different locations around Japan. Then it turns out that Heikichi Umezawa had written a document outlining his intention to do exactly this to these women, with methods of murder and disposal based on their zodiac signs, so the mystery of who could have carried out his nefarious scheme raises its ugly head and remains unsolved for decades…