The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

June 9, 2020

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 about the Ichiyanagis around the village.

Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family 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. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.

What with various real-life distractions I ended up taking most of May off from book reviewing. Things have settled somewhat, and I decided it was high time to get back to reading. I have tentatively dipped my toe back into the waters of genre fiction with a Japanese period detective novel called The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo.

I’ve not read a huge amount of what you would probably call traditional crime fiction so this was a pleasant change for me. The setting and time period felt suitably evocative and I was quickly embroiled in the twists and turns of the whodunnit.

The main protagonist, amateur sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi, is a fascinating character. He is certainly not what I expected when I decided to read a Japanese detective novel that is over seventy years old. Slightly wild of appearance and prone to obvious, if somewhat inappropriate, delight when investigating. I couldn’t wait to see what this enigmatic individual would do next. His entire being feels like the antithesis of what many would picture as the reserved traditional Japanese archetype. This is particularly obvious when he brings everyone together for the final reveal of how the killings were accomplished. The members of the household are continually caught off guard by Kosuke and his singular behaviour.

Most of the remaining characters are members of the Ichyanagi family and they are a mildly eccentric bunch. I guess that makes for a perfect rogue’s gallery when you are trying to unmask a murder. Everyone could be a potential suspect.

The majority of the novel takes place in the old inn owned by the family and using this single location made it feel almost like I was watching a play unfold. The reader’s attention is deliberately driven towards the characters. The author teases with suggestions that clues are right in front of your eyes if you choose to search for them. The novel’s approach also felt reminiscent of Agatha Christie television and film adaptations that I’ve seen.

This is the first time that The Honjin Murders has been translated into English and Louise Heal Kawai deserves kudos for such a flawless job. I often worry that translated works lose some of the original author’s intent but not so in this case. The pace and execution of the narrative are perfect.

I enjoyed my first foray into historic Japanese crime fiction. It felt oddly familiar but also different at the same time. I think this is the thing I liked most about it. I’m always keen to learn about new cultures, and the novel gave me the opportunity to learn more about the rigid structures and rules that existed, and may still exist, in Japanese society. This is well worth checking out if you are looking for a crime novel that is a little different to what you are used to.

My musical recommendation to accompany The Honjin Murders has a distinctly whodunnit vibe about. The devilishly suspicious tone to the soundtrack of Knives Out by Nathan Johnson fits perfectly.

The Honjin Murders is published by Pushkin Press and available now.


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