By Seishi Yokomizo
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I heard about Seishi Yokomizo for the first time last year.
Apparently, this represented a significant gap in my knowledge of the mystery genre. Yokomizo is a very famous Japanese mystery writer; he is the creator of the detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Yokomizo would write 77 novels featuring Kindaichi; ‘The Honjin Murders’ is the first.
In my defense, ‘The Honjin Murders’ was only published in English for the first time in 2019. From what I can tell, the translation series which I read, put out by Pushkin Press, has only published five of his works into English. I’ve ordered them all.
‘The Honjin Murders’ introduces the character Kosuke Kindaichi. Published for the first time in 1946, it is what’s called a “locked room” murder mystery. On their wedding night in 1937, Kenzo Ichiyanagi and his new bride Katsuko Kubo are murdered on the Ichiyanagi estate. The other inhabitants of the estate are woken by screams and, eerily, by the frenzied playing of a koto. When they rush into the annex building, they discover the newlyweds stabbed to death with a katana. There is no chance that the crime is a suicide; however, all the doors and windows were locked from the inside and there are no footprints in the snow outside.
Ginzo Kubo, Katsuko’s uncle, is infuriated and devastated by the death of his niece. Born a tenant farmer, he does not trust the aristocratic Ichiyanagi family. After Katsuko’s death, he becomes convinced that they are lying about the night of the murders, and he calls a young man he once rescued from drug addiction, Kosuke Kindaichi. Kindaichi, now a detective, is initially bored by the case, agreeing to come only to return Ginzo’s kindness. However, as the impossibilities and the complexities of the case begin to make themselves known, he will be drawn further and further in.
‘The Honjin Murders’ has a lot going for it. First off all, Kindaichi is a great addition to the pantheon of literary detectives. Sure, much of his character hews to genre norms: his imperturbable logic, superhuman insight. These are cliches, yes, but they are also necessary. The murders committed in novels are abstruse and convoluted, they need detectives with brilliance to match. Realism isn’t the goal.
But, as literary detectives go, Kindaichi is also a little unusual. First of all, he’s totally unpolished. He wanders around with holes in his shoes and dirty hair. This isn’t totally unheard of, but literary detectives tend to be unkempt, not slobs. Kindaichi is a slob, forever startling the people around him by shaking his long, filthy hair.
He’s also ghoulish. As the crime is revealed, each fact stranger than the last, Kindaichi’s pleasure grows. Despite the fact that he is close to the dead girl’s uncle, that he is staying in the home where the crime took place, with the grieving family, Kindaichi grins through the entire investigation. Ever since Sherlock Holmes, literary detectives who take intellectual enjoyment from the solving of ingenious crimes is a mystery trope, but Kindaichi is positively delighted by the complexity of the murder he is solving. It’s a little shocking, and adds a fun layer of tension to the book.
Secondly, there is a brilliant misdirect. I won’t spoil it, but the novel spends a lot of time setting up a very creepy and effective red herring. In fact, the entire novel is very satisfyingly creepy, particularly the punctuation of most dramatic moments by the spooky playing of a kuto.
The best part of the book, though, is the reveal of the motive. This isn’t usually the case, by the way: most murder mysteries save their emotional punch for the who, not the why. ‘The Honjin Murders’, though, loads all the horror of the murder not onto the murderer, but on the motive for the crime. It involves an un-anticipatable reveal, and lands like a bomb.
It is difficult to discuss much further without spoiling, and I am reluctant to do that. I will only say that the ending of ‘The Honjin Murders’ is dark and sad and surprisingly emotionally honest for a murder mystery. It is sophisticated and infuriating, and, despite its grimness, it was my favorite part of the book.
The motive is grim it is, though. It’s really grim, and it adds a nice cynical undertone to the book. It made me realize something that I had never really thought about before. Most of the classical murder mysteries (and ‘The Honjin Murders’ is absolutely classical in structure and tone) have cartoonish motives. I don’t mean that they are silly, but there is something about the context and the format which protects the reader from confronting the actual darkness of murder, from whatever fucked-upedness it takes to get one person to kill another.
Think about it: most classical murder mysteries feel quite divorced from actual death, from true human ugliness. They aren’t scary, they aren’t grim. Some of the best ones feel lightly humorous, like Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, or Dorothy Sayer’s Peter Whimsey stories. They may be about murder, but they aren’t grisly or dark.
‘The Honjin Murders’ reveals this darkness in the motive for the deaths. More than any other murder mystery I can remember, the motive for the crime at the center of this novel felt true and upsetting, and, in the end, I think it makes the book a lot stronger. It feels like a sudden swerve into verisimilitude when you, the reader, were expecting only genre. It’s almost a twist, and I love that about it.
I also think it demonstrates how sophisticated a mystery writer Yokomizo is. It takes skill to play with a genre as well as he has here, to exist both within and without its conventions. And I absolutely believe that he is playing intentionally, that ‘The Honjin Murders’ is meta-aware, so to speak. Mystery novels, their forms and conventions, are mentioned multiple times throughout the book, and the murders in the novel are described using terms from literary mysteries.
All of which leads me to believe that Yokomizo meant the motive to feel like a sudden ice bath for a readership complacently expecting a “normal” genre resolution. To remind his readers that murder, while we might find it entertaining in certain formats, is actually a terrible thing, done for terrible reasons. And while it might seem perverse and hypocritical, a murder mystery writer reminding people that murder isn’t entertaining, it doesn’t come across as preachy or like Yokomizo is trying to have it all. It is, in my opinion, basically completely successful.
I loved this book. I recommend it highly, and I personally will be reading everything of Yokomizo’s I can get my hands on.