The Honjin Murders [1973/2019] – ★★★★1/2
I am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser.
The book is narrated by a person who is unconnected to the murders and who simply tells us about one intriguing murder case he has heard about – the murder that happened within the clan of Ichiyanagi, a family who has always prided themselves on their lineage, being the direct descendants of those who kept a honjin (an inn where nobility would stay on the way to the Emperor) in the Edo Period. The distinguishing feature of the book is that the narrator first quite painstakingly introduces us to the setting, to all the family members within the household and to the unusual circumstances of the murder. How could this murder have possibly been committed if the murderer hardly had any means of escaping after he or she committed their murder?; what could be the significance of the koto, a Japanese stringed musical instrument, being played shortly after the murder?; and why the katana that was used to kill the couple was found in the snow some metres away form the house? Moreover, two days before the murder, witnesses reported seeing a suspicious-looking old man loitering near the Ichiyanagi estate while also asking directions to the main house. The police is dumbfounded by the case, especially when they learn that Kenzo, the victim of the murder, also received a mysterious note shortly before his wedding. Could someone from Kenzo’s close family (such as his mother Itoko, his two younger brothers Ryuji and Saburo, or his cousin Ryosuke), who all initially opposed his wedding, have been involved in the gruesome murders?
The Honjin Murders is a kind of a mystery which is an instant page-turner that keeps one guessing until the very end. The vivid images that it evokes, such as the snow, “a red-ochre-painted room and the sound of the koto….” [Yokomizo/Heal Kawai, 1973/2019: 11] are memorable, even if the characters remain somewhat distant, too many and not explored. There is something in The Honjin Muders from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series (a detective that uses hard logic to solve cases), from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd  (an unassuming detective and similar plot points) and from Gaston Leroux The Mystery of the Yellow Room  (one seemingly “impossible” crime and similar plot points). And, it seems that The Honjin Murders does not shy away from these comparisons, but welcomes and pretty much emphasises them. In that way, the book pays a very direct tribute to all of its predecessors and masters of this tricky genre, trying to bring different pieces of them together, while also contributing with its own unusual addition. Surprisingly, although I did not like Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders , I did find that many of the similar elements from that book worked well in The Honjin Murders, including the desire to imitate other world-famous crime mysteries and the focus on plot logistics over characters. Perhaps, Yokomizo’s unpretentious and even endearing style of writing helps to win the readers over, and it is very likely that the explanations behind the final solution will prove to be more believable for the Japanese than for the Western readers.
The Honjin Murders is not exactly literary and may be too crowded with various characters for such a short book. However, the mystery is also a very carefully set out one with plenty of red herrings and surprises along the way. This book, which evokes so vividly all the “attributes” of the unique murder – from the Japanese koto to the katana lodged in the snow, is a highly enjoyable debut.