Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders, published in Japan in 1946 and now available in English for the first time, employs the plot tricks of early European and American mystery writers to tell the story of a rapidly changing Japanese society around the time of the Second World War.
On a snowy November day in 1937, Kenzo Ichiyanagi, the eldest son of a once-great family, marries Katsuko Kubo, a schoolteacher. The family is woken up that evening by screams from the annex house that the newlyweds retired to earlier. All entrances locked, an ax is taken to a door, and the bride and groom are found dead, slashed and covered in blood, no murderer in sight.
The book’s narrator, who’s writing the novel years after the crime, is intrigued with the story in part because it seems to be a locked-room murder mystery, “a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point in his or her career.” Instead of giving the reader the facts in the case up front, the narrator at first gushes about all the other existing mystery plots that might be similar to this one, name dropping the works of American John Dickson Carr and French Maurice Leblanc.
The Honjin Murders can be satisfyingly read as a classic who-done-it, although through the lens of one of Japan’s most famous writers of the genre. The book allows Yokomizo, who died in 1981 after a prolific career, to introduce readers to his famous detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, for the first time. The unkempt and unorthodox sleuth would go on to star in 77 of Yokomizo’s works, as well as movies based on the novels, and appear in popular manga and anime formats. A series featuring his gumshoe grandson called The Kindaichi Case Files has also inspired novels, video games and movies. It’s a wonder this short novel, clocking in at about 180 pages, took so long to be published in English.
The way Yokomizo chooses to launch his most famous creation into the fictional world is a nod to all those outcast detectives of Western literature that came before him. When Kindaichi arrives on the scene about midway through the book, he doesn’t look promising. His toenails creep through his socks, his hair forms a tortuous nest, and he’s more concerned with shelves of books than suspect prints of blood. His eccentricities, which also include a stammer and a history of drugs, follow closely the traditions of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, among others.
Yet it’s still a story of Japan. The honjin of the title refers to an inn designated for traveling nobility during the country’s Edo period. The Ichiyanagi family proudly used to own a honjin, allowing them valuable status during the era. But they fled to their current village and bought farm land cheaply amid the tumult of the late 1860s and the Meji Restoration.
The Ichiyanagis surrendered their honjin, but through the decades that followed, they held onto the status that came with it. Lineage is important: once a descendant of a honjin, always a descendant of a honjin. When in 1937, Kenzo, the man of the house, announces his engagement to the daughter of a mere tenant farmer, the effect was as if “a large pebble had been dropped into a still pond. The ripples … building into waves of anger.”
Katsuko’s pedigree was no match for Kenzo’s. Even during a “period of upheaval” in the wake of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the narrator says that in rural villages: “You might even say [lineage] rules every aspect of people’s lives.”
The family reluctantly accepts Katsuko and tests their traditional definitions of what it means to be husband and wife in modern Japan. A useful list of more than 20 characters at the beginning of the book shows that the potential suspects are many. Inheritances, cultural or monetary, can motivate people to do bad things.
This story being a locked-room mystery, the narrator spends almost as much time describing the inanimate as the animate. There are detailed tours of the Ichiyanagi compound, its surroundings and its particular architecture. References to “amado rain shutters” and “decorative ranma transoms” could be integral to figuring how a crime occurred in a building with no apparent way for a criminal to enter or exit. Readers will probably refer to the diagram of the annex house in chapter five as often as they do the list of characters at the front.
The tone of the novel, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, is pleasantly matter-of-fact. The narrator relays the story like a jovial yet insatiable village gossip who has read too much detective fiction. Just when it seems the heart of the story is being reached, there’s another interruption with a seemingly stray piece of information.
“I know it’s shocking,” the narrator says in the first chapter, “but I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the killer for devising such a fiendish method to stab this man and woman.” This is a callous way of putting it, for sure. But not the worst way to appreciate the story that follows.