The Honjin Murders is a delightfully entertaining locked room murder mystery and there are plenty of twists, red herrings, and suspects in this monkey puzzle of a story. Japan has a wonderful history of crime writing, you may have seen some very dark stuff in the last ten years but this novel comes from a gentler age. The novel has a distinctive Japanese flavour but is also an homage to an earlier age of American and British mystery writing. Yokomizo was one of Japan’s leading crime writers, he published his first mystery at the tender age of nineteen. He was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, John Dixon Carr and Agatha Christie but his playful style is uniquely his own. The Honjin Murders is the first book in the Kosuke Kindaichi series, there are seventy-seven titles in all. Credit has to go to Pushkin Vertigo for this first ever English translation of this masterpiece, a superb rendering by Louise Heal Kawai. The Honjin Murders was released in 1946, readers couldn’t get enough of the locked room mystery and the magic still beguiles us today.

Yokomizo writes himself into the story at the beginning and then occasionally breaks the fourth wall to discuss details with the reader. In the opening chapter, he describes his visit to the infamous murder residence some time after the event, the Ichiyanagi clan home. Thus setting the scene. As he arrives the villagers of Yamanoya are happy to share their stories about the murder but they don’t know the full horror that unfolded that fateful night – the ghastly, fiendish plan that was enacted. The murders occurred in the annex house, the smaller of the two family buildings; two rooms, newly painted with new tatami mats. This was where the master, Kenzo, and his new bride, Katsuko, stayed on their wedding night, it’s where they were murdered. The Ichiyanagi clan home is set on a gentle ridge outside the village, there’s a hill behind, a river one side, a road the other. Yokomizo tells us that a koto, a traditional Japanese instrument, is playing in the background. Kenzo’s mother and siblings occupied the main house. Suzuko, the youngest sister, is a virtuoso player of the koto. The family face some resentment locally because they originally came from K_______ some miles away. At the end of the shogun era, the Edo period, the family lost its Honjin, an Inn for rich and important travellers, and came to O_______ province.

The story begins two days before that tragic night, on the 23rd November, 1937 (the twelfth year of the reign of the Showa Emperor). A stranger arrives: the three-fingered man, a ‘significant’ player we are told. Any visitor must pass the tavern, Okamisan, on the way to village from the station. The traveller, a shabby looking man with worn out shoes and straggly hair, perhaps thirty years old, asks the for the Ichiyanagi residence. At that moment Kenzo, the head of the Ichiyanagi family comes past in his rickshaw. The tavern owner and her companions begin talking about him. Kenzo has finally found himself a bride, it has been a long time coming for the forty-year-old academic, this they put down to his poor health. The bride to be, Rin-son’s daughter, is twenty-six, Katsuko, she is marrying up. They have forgotten the stranger until he asks for a glass of water. He has a deep scar on his cheek and as he reaches for the water they all noticed he has three fingers on his right hand. The stranger follows the rickshaw; of course, playing the Koto is entirely possible with three fingers on one hand.

Two nights later, after the wedding ceremony Kenzo and his wife retire to the annex, the music of the Koto can be heard across the family compound. Later the alarm is raised, a sword is found in the garden, the family break into the annex where they find the couple brutally killed. Naturally Inspector Isokawa and the police are stumped. Eventually Kindaichi is sent for, but even the master detective’s skills will be sorely tested in this fiendish case.

The Honjin Mysteries is beautifully writing and highly descriptive, rich in period detail and local custom. It’s an ingenious and deceptive mystery. An ideal book to curl up with on a winter’s night.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782275008 pbk Dec 2019