‘The Honjin Murders’ – Detective Kosuke Kindaichi #1 by Seishi Yokomizo

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.

I can see why this is a classic Japanese golden age locked room mystery. It starts with a scream heard in the middle of the night and the discordant sound of a koto being plucked savagely. It ends with the moon shining on a bloody katana stuck into the snow with no footprints around it, outside of a locked room in which two newlyweds have been slaughtered on their wedding night. It features a strange three-fingered man with a scar across his face, a young girl who sleepwalks in search of the ghost of her dead cat, a rich family ridden with intrigue, a son fascinated by Western mystery novels, and an eccentric, untidy, stammering private detective joyfully unravelling it all.

The imagery is stark, beautiful and, to my Anglo eyes, exotic. I kept imagining it as a manga, drawn only in black white and blood-red or like the animation in ‘Sin City’, dark, violent and accented with sprays of blood.

The storytelling style was a little unexpected. The novel opens like a documentary, narrated in the first person by a writer of detective fiction who is documenting what he has learnt about the murders at a wedding in the house of a wealthy family near the village to which he has recently been evacuated during the war. The murders, he tells us as he looks through the fence at a once-grand but now slightly dilapidated house, took place some years earlier, in 1937. He displays what I felt was a slightly ghoulish fascination with the murders because they are a locked room mystery set in a room where the beams and the woodwork were freshly painted red ochre and with the music of a koto playing at all the key moments. He compares the murders to the mysteries of John Dixon Carr but says the atmosphere is most similar  to Gastón Leroux’s ‘The Mystery Of The Yellow Room.’ So, despite the documentary style, his taste for fiction colours what he sees, turning a tragedy into a puzzle and lethal violence into an intriguing challenge.

Still in documentary style, the narrator shares the story of the Honjin murders in the form of reports from various eyewitnesses, like an historian share his source material. This style of presentation didn’t lend itself to much tension or excitement.

Only when the strange young private detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, arrives do we get a narrative with pace, immediacy and humour. Fortunately, those scenes account for about half of the book.

The plot is ingenious and the solution to the locked room mystery is rather splendid. Sadly, the exposition isn’t as fresh and exciting as the idea. The final section of the book dragged a little, having the same appeal as listening to a magician explain at length and in detail the mechanics of his magic trick.

On the whole, I had fun reading this. It was nice to step outside my own time and culture and to be presented with an absorbing mystery.

I liked the young detective, Kosuke Kindaichiso enough that I’m curious to read the other three novels about him that have been translated into English: Death on Gokumon Island, The Village of Eight Graves, and The Inugami Clan (a.k.a The Inugami Curse).

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