In my continuing adventures in the land of honkaku, (traditional, often locked-room Japanese mystery novels), I recently read Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders. Published here by Pushkin Vertigo, it was first released in Japan in 1946, putting its author on the mystery scene map and launching him on a long and successful writing career.
The detective in this, making his first appearance, is one Kosuke Kindaichi, who Yokomizo wrote 77 books about, and the time is the winter of 1937. In a small, rural village, the large Ichiyanagi family is all excited getting prepared for the wedding of one of their sons, Kenzo, to a young woman named Katsuko. On the night of the wedding, however, the Ichiyangi household is awakened by a horrendous scream, followed by the sound of eerie music played on a koto. Bride and groom are found murdered. The killer, whoever it is, has vanished into the night, and all that is left behind as clues are a handprint and a bloodied samurai sword, stuck into the unmarked snow outside the house where the murder took place. Who did this, is the first question, why, is another, and the third question is, in vintage locked-room fashion, how could this killing have been done.
What makes The Honjin Murders stand out, aside from the excellence of the puzzle itself, is how it uses its plot and characters to look at rural Japanese customs at the time. Class distinctions are explored along with ideas about family bloodlines, tradition, and honor at a time, apparently, when all these concepts in Japan were in flux, the old meeting the new. But through it all, with his cast of eccentrics, Yokomizo keeps things moving quickly, and he's adept at mixing lighthearted and at times tongue-in-cheek narration with scenes full of macabre atmosphere. The murder is particularly gory. And as I have found with several of the honkaku I've read, there is a very entertaining self-referential quality about the book, evidence of the author's love for the very kind of mystery story he's telling. He makes one of the characters (and thus suspects) an avid reader of mystery novels, and his detective, Kindaichi, is a reader of detective novels, and one chapter in the book is called "A Conversation about Detective Novels". While discussing the mystery at hand they're in (The Honjin Murders), Kindaichi and others discuss the difference between mystery fiction and real life, how criminals behave in each, and they reference Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room as well as a couple of John Dickson Carr's books. It's something I find intriguing and enjoyable every time I read one of these Japanese mysteries, how tropes and patterns developed in Anglo/European fiction get refracted through a different prism, and with such cleverness and fun. Kindaichi, I should add, is an engaging and likable character, with quirks, needless to say, and with his scruffiness and overall laid-back demeanor, it's no surprise that he's been described as someone not unlike Peter Falk's Columbo. He is, at least in this book though, an amateur detective, fulfilling that particular genre tradition.
Got a couple nights? Want to learn something about samurai swords and how kotos are strung while trying to figure out who killed the bridal couple? You can't go wrong with The Honjin Murders.