Title: The Honjin Murders
Author: Seishi Yokomizo, translated by
Every murder mystery writer longs to prove their chops with a locked room murder mystery, our narrator declares. Such novels are a test of every writer’s intelligence; the answer to these mysterious can’t be so improbable that it throws off the reader, neither can it be so simple to disgust them. The reader must be befuddled to the point of thinking that the crime is actually committed by a ghost, only to realise at the end of the novel how foolish they have been.
In The Honjin Murders, our narrator spins a tale of the horrific double-death of Kenzou Ichiyanagi and Katsuko Kubo, a newly-wedded couple who were found dead in their bed the night after their wedding, with the only clue being the sudden appearance of a three-fingered man and the sound of a kubo being played in the dead of the night.
Preliminary investigations reveal that the couple’s room was locked, and no footprints leading to or away from it. And yet with no way for the murderer to escape, the police manage to find the murder weapon outside of the house, disposed of in the garden.
As I have mentioned in previous reviews, I am a person who does appreciate having deductions explained to me — my brain is on semi-autopilot while reading. In The Honjin Murders, I am lucky Kindaichi kindly takes the time to explain his observations and how they led to his deductions, helped along by our mysterious narrator who even gives the page numbers for where Kindaichi first noticed the clues. Without them, I would no doubt be lost and looking in all the wrong areas.
There is a certain style that is very present amongst popular Japanese novels like Convenience Store Woman or Before the Coffee Gets Cold, and The Honjin Murders is no exception. The narrator is always cool and detached, sizing up the characters with an off-hand air and the story is always simply written (although that may be on the translator’s part). While this writing style isn’t something that speaks to me necessarily, I do see the appeal of such novels.
Apart from the writing style, my one other complaint was that the story was not exciting enough althouugh that is admittedly more of a personal preference. I enjoy my murder mysteries with a healthy dose of sabotage and backstabbing, and this is a novel free from all that. Even the more gory parts are described with the same detached air characteristic of Japanese novels, turning them from scenes of horror into what feels more like a child’s science report. But again, this is not necessarily a failing on the book’s part but rather just a personal preference of mine.
Regardless, the reveal is delicious and as clever as can be, and mystery fans who love to puzzle along with the detective will be delighted with the investigative process. If you were looking for a murder mystery with little to no frills, The Honjin Murders is the one for you.
This review first appeared in the newsletter The Reader Who Came In from the Heat. Subscribe for more reviews in your inbox.
The Honjin Murders is available at Kinokuniya for $18.95.