The Honjin Murders (1946; 2019) by Seishi Yokomizo (Trans. By Louise Heal Kawai)

This is my second read by Yokomizo this year, having reviewed Death on Gokumon Island (1947-1948) in June. The Honjin Murders is the second book in my niche project to read vintage crime fiction which significantly features a wedding or honeymoon. You can read more about it here. I placed Yokomizo’s mystery into the category of Something New, as the edition I am reading is a new (first?) English translation.

Synopsis

‘In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions around the village. Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi household are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. Soon, amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is on the scene to investigate what will become a legendary murder case, but can this scruffy sleuth solve a seemingly impossible crime?’

Overall Thoughts

Having read a later book in the Kindaichi series, it was interesting to return to the beginning, as I noticed several stylistic differences. The first of these is that The Honjin Murders is narrated by an unnamed character, who is a mystery novelist. He has been evacuated to the area the “Honjin murders” took place in and is therefore looking back on events, having collected evidence from local people. There is no such narrator in Death on Gokumon Island and the crimes take place in the present time of the book. I think this latter approach is a more effective one, as I don’t feel the unnamed narrator of The Honjin Murders was a great success.

Due to the fact the unnamed narrator was not present for any of the build up to the deaths, nor there when they occurred or when they were investigated, their information is reliant on others. Consequently, the bald prose felt liked someone writing up some notes or summarising a much longer document. In some areas this writing style became very dull, and I did not think the characters came to life as much as they could have done. The writing put me in mind of another mystery I had read many years ago, The Decagon House Murders (1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji.

The locked room component of the mystery is brought to the reader’s attention very early on, with the narrator giving a definition of such a crime, as well as referencing locked room mystery authors he claims to have read: Gaston Leroux, Maurice LeBlanc, S. S. Van Dine, John Dickson Carr and Roger Scarlett. It was interesting to see which British and American authors had made it to Japan by this stage. I was also intrigued when the narrator comments that Kindaichi’s:

‘…real life case wasn’t quite like any of the above-mentioned. Maybe, just maybe. The killer had read a selection of stories like these, dissected all of the different devices used, then picked out the elements that he needed, constructing his own device… At least that’s one theory.’

This section interested me as I felt it to be a metafictional comment which could be applied to the author himself, and I wonder whether this self-referential remark was signalling that he was going to do something different.

The opening of the book which brings the reader up to speed on the two central deaths has a pleasing touch of the macabre/gothic. For example, the crime scene had recently had its walls repainted red ochre, which the blood the deaths produce eerily blends in well with. We are also introduced to the sinister three fingered man, with a big scar and who had been asking questions about the household prior to the deaths. This was an effective scene as I felt there was something quite Dickensian about the trio at the pub, whom the disfigured stranger talks to and I felt the locals were good at revealing some of the relevant backstory.

Although the action of the story takes place in the late 1930s, the present day of the book, almost a decade later, still makes it mark on the narrative, as at one point the narrator comments briefly on one of the consequences of WW2 on Japanese society:

‘Gentle reader the word “lineage”, which has all but fallen out of usage in the city, is even today alive and well in rural villages like this one. You might even say it rules every aspect of people’s lives. We are now in a period of upheaval following the Second World War, and farmers and peasants are increasingly no longer obliged to kowtow to the upper classes, or to show the same level of respect for those with high social standing, fortune or property. Those values have come crashing down in the wake of Japan’s defeat. However, what is still intact is lineage.’

This was a feature I found interesting in Death on Gokumon Island, but I felt in this earlier novel, that these occasions had a more didactic tone. This may be due to the writing style being sparser, coupled with the fact that there are large sections of text with no dialogue. I also have a question, which if anyone knows the answer, I would be interested to hear it: Did Yokomizo’s post WW2 Japanese readers need all of this information, this explaining of Japanese customs, due to society becoming less traditional, or has this information been inserted into the novel by the translator for the benefit of modern-day Western readers? I was curious as I haven’t really seen this level of custom explaining in vintage British or American novels.

In keeping with my other posts for this niche project of mine, I have been on the look out for Wedding/Honeymoon life lessons…

Life Lesson No. 1

Avoid having your wedding on a day when snow is due to fall, since this weather phenomenon aids impossible crime plans. My own was in August so fortunately there was no chance of snow!

Life Lesson No. 2

No musical instruments in the bedroom on the wedding night. At best it is an awkward time to discover the other half can’t play well or at worse, as in the case of The Honjin Murders, if it’s a stringed instrument, the item might become involved in the method used to kill you.

Like Death on Gokumon Island there is a map for the reader, which is very helpful given the intricacies of Japanese house building. However, I would have appreciated the map appearing a few pages earlier, as there were some earlier descriptions which were hard to picture without it. Furthermore, when the map does arrive, it labels the spot where the killer hid. My slight issue with this is that the characters at this stage have not discovered this point. That occurs later in the chapter and the map is referred to, but for me by having the information ahead of the text, felt like a spoiler.

The investigation into the two deaths spends a lot of time concentrating on the three fingered man, not least because of the forensic evidence left at the scene and I felt the thoroughness the police put into following up this elusive figure, put me in mind of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French.

In contrast to Death on Gokumon Island, the series private detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, does not enter the story straight away. Instead, he appears 80 pages in. Since The Honjin Murders is the first Kindaichi mystery we are offered more backstory and introduction to his character, which I enjoyed. There was one passage I found particularly interesting:

‘Since then I have pieced together all the different accounts, and have begun to believe that the youth with his apparently relaxed, easy-going demeanour had something of the Anthony Gillingham about him. Please, Ladies and Gentlemen, don’t be confused by my sudden throwing out of a foreign-sounding name – this is the lead character in the detective novel The Red House Mystery by my favourite British author, A. A. Milne. Anthony Gillingham was also an amateur detective. Milne first introduces the character of Anthony Gillingham with these words: He is an important person to this story, so that it is as well we should know something about him before letting him loose in it. I will also adopt Mr Milne’s approach and straight away offer you some insight into the character of Kosuke Kindaichi.’

Yokomizo’s selection of Milne and his one-off sleuth Gillingham intrigued me, as this is quite a large reference to make. Carr may get more mentions in this book, but I wouldn’t say any of his books get as extensive a reference as Milne’s. I think I was surprised because whilst Milne’s book is easy to obtain nowadays, I don’t think it is considered remarkable or memorable in the way Christie’s titles were and are. I am not saying it doesn’t have any fans, but I wouldn’t say it gets talked about much either. It was at this stage that I remembered the red ochre building of the crime scene and wondered if Yokomizo was alluding to Milne’s book in a more symbolic way too.

I liked finding out about how Kindaichi, in his youth, had a Sherlock Holmes like connection to drug taking and it was interesting to see the steps he took before becoming a detective. I enjoyed how this backstory was given in nutshell form, rather than allowed to swallow up or slow down the plot. Brevity has its uses, such as in this instance, but as a widespread narrative technique it has some drawbacks as this review has suggested previously.

Regarding the solution, I found Kindaichi’s experiment and explanation quite boggling in its dry focus on technical and mechanical elements. I don’t think I would have ever been able to work it out ahead of the ending. I think this is the type of solution in which a reader might grab some threads of it, but not the entirety of it. It doesn’t help that there is more than one aspect you can’t anticipate ahead of being told (gur guerr svatrerq zna orvat va gur xvya sbe rknzcyr) * and Kindaichi is not completely up front about all his actions during the investigation. I did however enjoy how the solution was embedded in Japanese culture, something I had previously liked in Death on Gokumon Island.

Rating: 3.5/5

For Better or Worse: This is a temporary new rating system being applied to my reads for my wedding/honeymoon project and I think in this instance, bearing in the mind the aspects I enjoyed less about the book, I would say this mystery just tips its nose into being a for worse read. A different narrator I think would have made a big difference.

*Spoiler in ROT13 code.

8 comments

  1. I have also wondered how much was insterted by the translator for western audiences. I think it would be more conventional to do so via footnotes, but it certainly feels like a Japanese audience would not need all the explanations.

    Regarding your wedding project, it does contain a line with some relevance: “As for his wife, Akiko, there was nothing particularly distinctive abour her; she was just an ordinary woman, obedient to her husband.” So now you know how an ordinary woman should behave once married.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad it was not just me who noticed the high explanation levels. Hopefully someone might know if they are translator insertions or not, as if they were not then their inclusion is quite intriguing.

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    • Those were most likely inserted by the translator. I remember reading somewhere (via either a podcast or an interview with Louise) that Pushkin’s house style avoids footnotes/endnotes, so the clarifying descriptions were integrated with the main text

      Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Louise, the translator here!
          Some of the descriptions were added by me. As mentioned above, most fiction publishers do not permit footnotes and endnotes and it would be terrible if the reader had no idea what the book was talking about because of the different culture and the time. The enjoyment of the mystery could be ruined. I do my best to insert it not too awkwardly into the text, but it’s a tricky job.
          That said, Yokomizo also includes a large amount of explanatory text himself, as even his contemporary Japanese readers apparently couldn’t picture everything. A lot of the time, I was simply translating that. So it’s a mixture.
          Personally I think it would be wonderful if publishers allowed Translator’s notes at the beginning of a book, and a glossary of terms. How great would it have been if there had been an illustrated glossary of some points of traditional Japanese architecture in The Honjin Murders? So far the best I have done is to create a character list for the front of the book so that English language readers can follow all the Japanese names (yes that is my work, not Yokomizo’s!)
          Nobody will ever agree on the best method of dealing with this problem in translation, and yes, translators are usually blamed when the reader doesn’t like something, but hey, we’re a thick-skinned lot and used to it by now. The love of the craft keeps us going.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Interesting to hear from you. I hope you keep up the translations. But I agree, with translators notes they would be even better!

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