This is the new 2019 English translation of a Japanese writer Yokomizo’s fictional crime story published in 1973. The narrator, also a crime writer is investigating a “true crime” event that took place in 1937 and this is his recounting of the tale. A senior policeman DI Isokawa is brought into the area but is helped by a friend and private investigator Kindaichi to unravel the mystery. Initially suspicion will fall on a stranger, the enigmatic, masked “three fingered man”. When the deaths are investigated if they cannot be a simple suicide murder then they must have been deeply planned – where did the killer get his ideas from? The whole tale has references to international crime fiction authors and plots. Is it co-incidental that the house library holds a large selection of crime novels? Or is there something deeper going on? When Isokawa and Kindaichi start to work out how the killings were carried out they can then start to identify the guilty party. But crime does not operate in a vacuum so the author explores what was the motive at both the immediate and deeper level.
The deaths take place on the wedding night of Kenzo, eldest son of the Ichiyanagi family and Katsuko of the Kubo family at the groom’s family estate. The reference to Honjin refers to the family’s previous traditional role as keepers of a Honjin – an inn for royal or aristocratic travellers. The family are very proud of this aristocratic heritage. Katsuko comes from a family of “tenant” farmers, albeit that her uncle, and late father, made a great deal of money as businessmen in America before returning to Japan. His niece is therefore both wealthy and cultured. Kenzo, 40, needing a family heir had insisted on the wedding to his younger bride in spite of family objections. We are taken through the preparations and ceremonies of a traditional wedding being introduced to al the main characters of both families. Shortly after the married couple are left alone screams are heard and when others break into the locked annexe both bride and groom are found dead.
Without giving away the plot, the process that the investigators went through is then detailed as the investigators check, motive, capacity, intentions etc. As all the family “witnesses” are questioned the reader is able to build a picture of the place in its historic time, of the deeper nuances of the family lives and the stresses and disagreements. A number of possible suspects emerge as the tale inevitably becomes deeper and more multi layered.
It should be said that towards the end “all shall be revealed” in the classic (and less believable) moment when all parties sit down with the investigators and the latter reveal exactly how it was done and who was responsible. But if you accept the nature of early historic crime fiction with its nuances and practices then that might be OK with you. Because of the sheer complexity of the plot it must be said that this is the heaviest part of the novel and perhaps the weakest too.
Around the murder and procedurals Yokomizo graphically depicts an already old fashioned, or almost obsolete, family life style. But the depiction of a “foreign” place either by geography or time is part of the attraction for this reader. The picture he builds of the surrounding rural landscape is lush and beautiful and very visual too. But the greatest skill is in his depiction of the people, sympathetic to some, but quietly critical of others whose lack of generosity of spirit and kindness does not go unnoticed. This is an interesting read, albeit already a little dated at the time of its first publication of a novel that will, until this translation, have passed most people by.
Hilary White 4/4*
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
9781782275008 Pushkin Vertigo Dec 2019