Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo is a Japanese crime novel written back in 1948.

The Honjin Murders was awarded the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award back in 1948 but for the very first time in 2020, this novel has been translated into English.

Set during the winter of 1937, we are transported back in time, to the village of Okamura and the upcoming marriage of a prominent member of the community, Kenzo Ichiyanagi.  A marriage in such an imposing family is causing a great deal of excitement and gossip around the streets of the village.

Kenzo Ichiyanagi is the oldest son of Itoko and perhaps the brightest but has suffered from ill-health in the past causing him to return to his family home and become somewhat of a recluse although he does still occasionally lecture and provides guidance to those in a similar field to himself.

During periods away from home, he met and became attracted to his young bride, Katsuko, a school teacher from Okayama City. What started more as a mutual appreciation for literature soon turned into a blossoming relationship.

Unfortunately, this marriage was not destined to last, with tragedy striking the night of their wedding.

After a small wedding consisting of just a few family members, Kenzo and Katsuko head to their own little haven on the ancestral estate to consummate their marriage to one another. In the early hours of the following morning, however, guests are woken by what they perceive to be screams followed by the noise of a Koto being played. Both sides of the family rush to make sure all is ok, only to find that they can neither gain access to the property nor rouse the newly-weds.

After what seems like forever, and with no easy access to the property, Katsuko’s uncle, Ginzo, decides that they need to break in because surely if they were ok they would have responded. The scene that greets them, however, is something that I am not sure any of them are fully prepared for. Laying in front of them, entwined together are bride and groom covered in blood and no longer breathing.

Who could do such a thing? And on their wedding night?

Looking at the bloodshed in front of them, it soon becomes clear that things are complicated. For a start, it would appear that no-one has entered or left the premises. Thanks to a flurry of snow earlier, it would have made it impossible for an intruder to exit unnoticed. The difficulty, however, is that the murder weapon is outside and all the doors are locked. How could the weapon that killed the pair have got outside after both died? Someone clever must have been able to get in and out without detection, but how?

Soon the area is flooded by police but they are none the wiser which leads to Ginzo contacting the one person he believes could help.

“There was a famous and quite bizarre murder in San Francisco’s Japanese community that had remained unsolved for a long time. And when a certain young drug addict by the name of Kosuke Kindaichi stumbled upon the case, he succeeded in solving it once and for all.”

Kosuke Kindaichi is a young man whom Ginzo long ago saved from a life of the streets. In return for his generosity, Kosuke is extremely close to Ginzo and so drops everything to catch the next available train to help solve this crime.

Kosuke has become quite famous for the way he solves cases that others find impossible, and so when he arrives everyone is slightly shocked by his scruffy appearance and his prominent stutter. Is he really capable of solving this particular murder case?

Eager to find out the truth though, he is soon in the thick of it, seeking out unlikely clues that others have easily overlooked, asking questions that appear completely random and unrelated at times and appearing to go off on a tangent frequently.

Is he completely mad or a genius though?

With his love of mystery writers, he is soon explaining to both the inspector in charge and the horrified family that this is what is known as a ‘locked room mystery’.

 “It’s what you call a murder that has happened in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside. The killer had no possible escape route. Mystery writers call it ‘an impossible crime.”

Will he be able to solve this particular homicide though? Can he see what others have failed to notice?

My Thoughts on The Honjin Murders

I always worry about reading a translated text because if done badly, the whole story loses pace and any meaning behind it is lost. The Honjin Murders, however, is well interpreted. Obviously, I don’t read Japanese so I cannot tell you for certain that the novel I have read is an exact copy of the original but I appreciate the skill involved in recreating someone’s words for a new audience.

The Honjin Murders reads as any good Agatha Christie novel would. The story evolves and unfolds at pace giving the reader just enough information in each chapter for their armchair sleuthing to be satisfied whilst keeping something back for the grand reveal, just like Columbo would have done.

The places mentioned and the character’s names did take time to get used to and when I glanced too quickly at the text I got confused and had to re-read a paragraph or two simply because so many named something similar, perhaps with only a vowel or two differing. Once I got past this though, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and cannot wait for more of Seishi Yokomizo’s work to be translated into English for me to appreciate.

Have you read any similar works originally written in Japanese, or any other language?

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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo is a murder mystery set in Japan, written in 1948. In 2020 it has been translated into English for the first time. Read the full review @tbookjunkie

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