The Honjin Murders

Written by Seishi Yokomizo

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Honjin Murders
Pushkin Vertigo
RRP: £8.99
Released: December 05, 2019
Pbk reprint

Here’s something that promises a sea change, not only for its Japanese setting, and that by an author celebrated for his crime novels in his native country, but for its timing.

First published in 1946, the eponymous crimes occurred in 1937 and in a simple rural community as yet untouched by any hint of the devastating war to come. In the nineteen thirties there were trains and buses but no cars in the back country of Honshu. People rode bicycles or walked. There were no phones. A feudal legacy prevailed, but it was ambivalent, flexible. Until recently touring nobles and their retinues were accommodated in elite establishments called honjins, the proprietors, through association, achieving such high rank themselves that they came to be regarded almost as gentry.

This was Japan before globalisation: epitomised by a village dominated by an extended honjin family, the widowed matriarch now retired and occupying a large house with her two sons and a daughter said to be “a bit slow”. Another son is a doctor in Osaka; and a second daughter lives in Shanghai (but she doesn’t come into the story so can be ignored, the narrator assures the reader). The narrator is comfortably at one’s elbow throughout the book, directing us to clues, explaining, warning, admonishing; he is in turn playful or stern, chum or mentor, keeping us involved.

The action takes place in the annexe: a second house in the grounds of the main residence. This cottage is about to be occupied by the eldest son and his bride. The fiancée is the daughter of a fruit farmer, her lower class deplored by others in the family and emphasised by the narrator. In such circumstances it seems not inappropriate that violent death should involve the bridal pair. That it should occur on the wedding night may be dismissed as a coincidence but for the over-riding factor that the couple died in a locked room.

To this point the western reader has been lulled into a sense that we are in old Japan so the next turn comes as a shock although, given that for some years an American element must have been apparent (think Madame Butterfly and the US Navy) and we’re told that one brother had spent time in America, the turn is plausible if momentarily startling. It concerns the third son of the house, “currently unemployed” according to the character list: he who had been to America. Living in the main house, sharing quarters with his older brother (the one about to marry the fruit farmer’s daughter) this third son has an extensive library of detective novels, in Japanese, English, American, in translation. He venerates Freeman Wills Croft, Dickson Carr, Conan Doyle – an addiction that arouses the interest of a celebrated private detective – a kind of youthful Japanese Holmes and Yokomizo’s series character. He is called in by an uncle of the murdered bride and it’s he who solves the riddle of the locked room.

The characters are fun, tending to distract attention from the plot, which is less exotic than its milieu. As might be expected all the family members are suspects, including the sweet backward girl who sleepwalks and keeps vigil at the grave of her dead kitten. There is the chief suspect: a kind of stock character like the West’s “passing tramp” but here it’s a Three Fingered Man with a ghastly facial wound who leaves his prints fortuitously on a glass. There’s the bumbling policeman in awe of the imported detective, various servants, farm workers - and a publican who preserves the crucial glass. Clues abound and the denouement is all of a piece.

It’s different: mannered and strangely comfortable after too much noir and squalor. Absorbing enough that it’s not until you reach the end and consider and deconstruct The Honjin Murders that you realize much of its merit must derive from the translation by Louise Heal Kawai. Yokomizo has to share the honours but in what proportion is immaterial; teamwork has produced a delightful curiosity.

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