A few books by Japan’s most famous mystery writer have recently been translated into English and published! When I heard that, I just had to get my own copy of the first one, The Honjin Murders, which was originally published in 1945. What do you think? Will it hold up?
A Locked Room Mystery
The story is set in the winter of 1937 and told by a narrator who moves to a small village and finds everyone talking about a murder that had occurred there. A wealthy family who lived just outside the village had celebrated a wedding, and that very night everyone was awakened by screams. Then there was the discordant sound of a koto being harshly plucked and a loud thud. Family members and servants congregated to find out what had happened.
It had been snowing, and the house and gardens were covered with a pristine layer of snow. The noise had come from an annex building north of the main house. They found a katana sword covered in blood stuck in the snow next to a stone lantern, and all the doors were locked from the inside. They had to break one of the sliding rain shutters with an axe to get in. The victims were already dead. How could the murderer have escaped a locked room and leave the murder weapon in the snow without leaving any footprints?
The Japanese Sherlock Holmes
After the police questioned the family members, the uncle of the bride decided somebody was lying and sent a telegram to a private detective he knew, Kosuke Kindaichi. The detective arrived the next day, a young man of medium build and scruffy appearance. He wore a traditional haori jacket and hakama pleated skirt, both wrinkled, and sported a shapeless hat over his bird’s nest hair. [Kindaichi appeared in seventy books and several movies, and was even made as an action figure, which you see in this picture. He was hailed as the Japanese Sherlock Holmes.]
Kindaichi had met the uncle four years before in San Francisco, where he was skipping out on university classes and indulging in narcotics, and the uncle was arranging to import California grapes to Japan. Kindaichi had solved a crime that had stumped the police, and the uncle was impressed enough to offer to pay his tuition if he would knock off the drugs. After graduating, Kindaichi returned to Japan and soon made the newspapers by solving cases with his ability to notice small details, deduce the motivations of the people involved, and analyze evidence the police had collected. [This is a picture of Tomohisa Yamashita as Kindaichi in a 2013 TV movie.]
Steeped in culture
While the book is written in a familiar detective novel style and the author mentions several of his favorite western writers in the first chapter, the story is immersed in the Japanese traditional world. It gives a fascinating look at traditional culture, music, house design, and even the class system. People in the story play the koto, a 70-inch long musical instrument with 13 strings and movable bridges. It becomes an important clue in unraveling the murder mystery.
The narrator references the architectural details of the house in describing the crime scene. Although it is all explained by the translator, I think seeing a picture is helpful. Floors are covered with tatami mats, and room sizes are measured by how many are used. An eight-tatami room would be about eleven feet square. The solid white sliding doors used for closets or between rooms are called fusuma. The sliding shoji doors are used for the outside walls of rooms, and being paneled with paper, they let in the light. A wooden-floored hallway called the engawa runs outside the rooms, and outside of that are sliding rain shutters called amado, which can be completely opened to allow the engawa to function as a covered porch. Transoms above the sliding doors are sometimes pierced and carved to let air circulate; they are called ranma.
A honjin was a special inn where government officials stayed during the time of the shoguns. That’s where the title of the book comes from. Wealthy families hosted the honjins, and that is the background of the groom’s family. They looked down on the bride’s family for being farmers, even though she was educated and was a school teacher. What they didn’t know or care about was that her uncle had become very successful with his fruit orchards and had more money than they did.
The author, Seishi Yokomizo, was born in 1902 and as a kid spent much of his time reading western mystery novels translated into Japanese. He got a pharmacy degree and worked in his family’s drug store for a few years, and then became a magazine editor. He was very ill with tuberculosis in his thirties and wrote his first novel while he was convalescing. His books were extremely popular in Japan and influenced many younger writers. An award of ¥10,000,000 named after him is given each year for a new unpublished mystery novel.
How does it hold up?
I liked it: it’s a well written page-turner. I enjoy that old cozy style of mystery, and I could never have guessed the ending. Although Yokomizu admired Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr and is sometimes said to write in that kind of Golden Age style, his stuff is actually quite a bit more bloody than that. He leaves you clues and feeds you red herrings, then gives you a reasonable solution, even though it is somewhat elaborate and unlikely. It makes me want to read it again to see how everything fits in, now that I know the ending. Let us know in the comments if you try out any of Yokomizo’s novels!
(If you would like to purchase a copy of The Honjin Murders AND support the blog, you can use our Amazon affiliate link here: https://amzn.to/3QSnOED Disclaimer in the sidebar.)
Until the next Japanese mystery,
Dramas With a Side of Kimchi