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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Crime/Thriller

By Swirl and Thread

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Japan’s greatest classic murder mystery, now published for the first time in English with Pushkin Press.

Every so often a book arrives at my door that really catches my eye. It could be the uniqueness of the cover, the plot, the genre, among any reasons. In the case of The Honjin Murders, it was a combination of many elements but it also felt quite an honour to have such a special book in my hand. The Honjin Murders was originally published in 1946, and went on to be awarded the inaugural Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948. Written by Seishi Yokomizo, a renowned Japanese writer of crime fiction and murder mysteries, who became most well known for his Detective Kosuke Kindaichi series, The Honjin Murders is the first book in this series, which eventually totalled 77 books in all.

Seishi Yokomizo loved a mystery, with the writings of Agatha Christie among of his favourite. In The Honjin Murders, Poirot definitely comes to mind but the setting could not be more different. Set in the isolated village of Okamura, we are introduced to the characters and the location by the author himself. Seishi Yohomizo becomes the narrator as he provides the reader with the background to this murder, bringing it very much alive and adding a true-story element to the tale.

“Generally as soon as people hear that I’m a writer of detective stories, they feel compelled to tell me of any murder case with which they have the slightest personal connection. I suppose rumours of my profession had reached the ears of the villagers, so every single one managed to bring up the topic of the Honjin Murder Case at some point. For the people of this village there could hardly be a more memorable case, and yet most of them were not aware of the full horror of this crime.”
– Chapter 1 (Opening page)

The Ichiyanagi residence is the setting of this most heinous of crimes. Yokomizo offers the reader insightful observations and gathered perceptions. A recent wedding had taken place there for Kenzo, the eldest son of the family. His choice of wife, Katsuko, was not to everyone’s liking. Her family were not of the same social standing as the Ichiyanagis and the general opinion was that Kenzo was marrying beneath him.

On the night of the wedding, screams were heard in the early hours and the distant plucking of a koto (Japenese instrument), from the direction of the annexe where the newly married couple had retired to. A ghastly scene was discovered, when the mutilated bodies of Kenzo and Katsuko were found bloodied on the floor. A terrible atrocity but with no obvious sign of entry the case becomes known as a ‘locked room mystery’.

Amateur sleuth, Kosuke Kindaichi, is summoned by Katsuko’s uncle, introducing this rather unassuming character to the reader for the very first time.

‘He was around twenty-five or -six, of medium build, on the pale side, and he would have been completely unremarkable if it weren’t for his unusual choice of clothes….for a young man in the prime of his life he seemed shockingly indifferent to his appearance….
In the collective memory of the villagers, even those most closely involved in the case, this young man is still something of an enigma‘

Kindaichi, although modest in appearance, had an incredible and curious mind, one that had the ability to see beyond the obvious and to connect up some very disjointed dots.

As Kindaichi observes and questions he slowly unravels this very complex case. His unorthodox approach unearths some bizarre findings and, as in any good mystery story, he gathers all those present into a room and unveils the truth behind this most mysterious and shocking tragedy.

The Honjin Murders is a cosy classic mystery. This excellent translation by Louise Heal Kawai offers the English reader a unique insight into the culture and practices of a fascinating society. It is a novel that remains as current today as it did in 1948 with a very distinctive Japanese element to the narrative. The final details are very intricate with a very convoluted plot-line that really highlights the mindset of this iconic Japanese writer.

The Honjin Murders is the perfect treat for all murder mystery lovers, especially the Agatha Christie fans among you. A clever and ingenious little gem of a read.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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