Book review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
First appearing in 1946 and only translated for the first time into English by Louise Heal Kawai, Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders is a classic locked room mystery, one indeed acknowledged as such by the narrator of the story, citing numerous references to other such classics of the mystery genre. The events that take place in The Honjin Murders are presented by the narrator, who has always wanted to write a locked room mystery of his own, as if they were a true story of an extraordinary true case that has fallen into his lap.
The events take place in November 1937 in the village of Okamura at a marriage between Kenzo Ichiyanagi, the eldest son of a family of respected lineage and Katsuko Kubo, the humble daughter of a former tenant farmer turned self-made businessman. Both are found murdered on the night of their wedding in an annexe to the main house, a 'honjin', a superior inn used in former times by nobles travelling to the capital Edo. The annexe however has been locked from the inside with no means of entrance or escape by the murderer. On a night of snow however, there are indications that someone sneaked into the annexe earlier in the evening and may have hidden in a small storage room but there's no way for the murderer to escape, and no footprints of escape in the snow outside.
There are a number of intriguing details and incidental information that the narrator provides, some of which appear illuminate the case, others just make it seem more impossible. A mysterious man, shabbily dressed with only three fingers on his right hand was seen in the vicinity and appears to have passed a message with a threat to Kenzo on the day of the wedding. A handprint with only three bloody fingerprints was also seen on the walls of the bedroom. Most disturbing of all is the detail of the koto - a traditional instrument - played just after the screams of the murdered victims were heard, with three bloody finger-picks left in the room.
Aside from the locked room puzzle, there are a lot of factors that simply don't add up, many of them to do with the evidence left behind by the three-fingered man whose presence causes such a disturbance in the village, with torn notes and burnt papers alluding to events in the past. There is also quite a bit of mystery surrounding the various members of Ichiyanagi family. It's all too much for the local police to make sense of, so Katsuko's father calls in a young friend, Kosuke Kindaichi, to help with the investigation. Despite his youthful age, Kindaichi has quite a reputation for solving crimes that have baffled the regular authorities.
First published in Japan in 1946, The Honjin Murders is the first case involving detective Kosuke Kindaichi who Seishi Yokomoto would develop into a series of 77 books. Young and a little eccentric Kindaichi comes across very much as a kind of Rouletabille character, and indeed the locked room situation here is strongly influenced by Gaston Leroux's first classic Rouletabille locked room adventure, The Mystery of the Yellow Room. There's a certain amount of overt referencing them to classic detective fiction in The Honjin Murders, from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie, which makes it seem a little bit hokey and old-fashioned, but Yokomizo also manages to delve quite successfully into the historical complexities of post-war Japanese culture, class and society, and how its legacies and traditions have some bearing on the case.