I Try To Solve a Japanese Honkaku Murder Mystery: The Honjin Murders, by Seishi Yokomizo

HonjinMurdersFresh off my defeat from trying to solve The Decagon House Murders, I decided to try my hand at another Japanese murder mystery. And this time, I decided to go a touch more classical. Seishi Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi mysteries were published in the mid-20th century, with the first in the series, The Honjin Murders, published in 1946. Whereas The Decagon House Murders was part of the “shin honkaku” genre (or new honkaku), The Honjin Murders was O.G. and according to online sources, considered one of the best Japanese detective novels. Seishi Yokomizo would go on to write 76 other Kosuke Kindaichi novels, and I figured that made him as iconic a series detective as Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.

From the very first pages, I’ll tell you The Honjin Murders drew me in much more quickly and deeply than The Decagon House Murders did. Nothing against the latter mystery — clearly, that author had also successfully bamboozled me with their craftiness — but I think the sheer volume of overt callouts to Golden Age detective fiction in Decagon House Murders kept me at a bit of a distance. In contrast, even though the narrator of The Honjin Murders was recounting events already a year or more in the past, the narrative voice still immersed me in the story. The mid-1940s setting created an atmosphere of war; the narrator was “evacuated to this rural farming village in Okayama Prefecture in May of last year, at the height of the bombing raids,” and is immediately intrigued by the stories their neighbours have shared about “the Koto murder case,” a.k.a. “the Honjin Murder Case” at the home of the Ichinayagi family. Instantly, the story has drawn me into this small town murder mystery involving a clearly significant local family, and has given me an outsider narrator as eager to piece things together as I am. Even before I had a sense of my chances of solving this mystery, I already knew I would enjoy the book and would likely be seeking out more of Seishi Yokomizo’s novels.


Ready to solve this case!

Alas, I did not solve this case. That may possibly be of no surprise at this point, considering my track record with other murder mysteries, but this mystery takes pride of place as the first story where I didn’t even realize the reveal was about to happen. Blame it on the two-week break I took between the 35% mark and the remainder of the story. (Not the book’s fault; life got hectic.) Perhaps the break let my guard down. Or perhaps it’s because the chapter with the big reveal took place at 73% in, and I’m more accustomed to Agatha Christie novels where the reveal doesn’t happen till practically the last two chapters. (In hindsight, the chapter title “Kosuke’s Experiment” should have clued me in, but honestly, I thought that just meant that he was testing theories out.)

will give myself credit that I figured out the significance of a clue (a conversation Kosuke had with a shopkeeper) and the twist reveal behind one event. But I did not guess the killer at all, nor did I figure out the rather complex way they committed the crime. I’ll console myself with the belief that the Agatha Christie locked room mysteries I’ve read hadn’t actually prepared me for this particular one; readers of Gaston Leroux’s Mystery of the Yellow Room and John Dickson Carr’s locked room mysteries may have better luck. (Not a spoiler; the narrator mentions the Yellow Room really early on, and characters chat about Carr’s mysteries about midway through. I haven’t read either so I can’t say for sure how helpful a clue these references are.) To me, the murder method feels more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery than either an Hercule Poirot or a Miss Marple. Overall, the method is elaborate and ingenious; kudos to Seishi Yokomizo for setting it all up, and for sprinkling all the relevant clues along the way. And to Yokomizo’s credit, the way Kosuke Kindaichi explains the psychology behind the murder is very like Hercule Poirot. So I really love how the author combined multiple tropes of the genre.

I also really liked how Yokomizo closes out the novel. The narrator rather smugly calls our attention to their careful use of language, which cleverly obscures some key revelations without outright lying to us about the important facts of the case. The narrator also tells us the fates of various members of the Ichinayagi family, many of whom had the rest of their lives very much influenced by the war around them. It’s a sobering, at times rather sad, reminder of the time in which these characters lived, but also a sense of the broader situation of the world, beyond the singular set of deaths within this otherwise sleepy village.

So I’m afraid this mystery-solving adventure ended rather abruptly for me, in that it was only when I read the big reveal that I realized I should’ve stopped reading and made my guess several pages earlier. But I really enjoyed the book regardless, and I’ll readily admit the killer and their motive came as a surprise to me. I did buy a copy of another Kosuke Kindaichi mystery (sixth in the series, second to be translated into English), The Inugami Curse, so that’s on a docket for a future mystery-solving adventure. And this time, I’ll know to stop reading before Kosuke does any experimenting!

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