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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Honjin Murders

Yokomizo Seichi

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To purchase The Honjin Murders

Title: The Honjin Murders
Author: Yokomizo Seichi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1946 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 189 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Honjin Murders - US
The Honjin Murders - UK
The Honjin Murders - Canada
Il detective Kindaichi - Italia
Asesinato en el Honjin - España
  • Japanese title: 本陣殺人事件
  • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
  • First published serially in 1946
  • There are numberous film and TV versions of 本陣殺人事件

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit creaky and thin, but some amusing nods to the genre

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 18/12/2019 .
The Guardian . 22/11/2019 Laura Wilson
Irish Times . 21/12/2019 Sarah Gilmartin
The Japan Times . 11/1/2020 Iain Maloney
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/9/2020 Marilyn Stasio
Sunday Times . 19/4/2019 Joan Smith
TLS . 24/7/2020 Rohan Maitzen

  From the Reviews:
  • "An aficionado of Western detective novels, Yokomizo offers a fresh spin on familiar ingredients. (...) Yokomizo (who died in 1981) saves his biggest surprise for the end." - The Economist

  • "The plot (...) has plenty of golden age ingredients -- a mysterious masked man, bloody handprints, heavy snowfall obscuring footprints and a plethora of confusing clues -- and a truly ingenious solution." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "The narrative is clever and self-knowing, often referencing other classic murder novels from the likes of Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. (...) Like all the best murder mysteries, we learn about the wider society and how the individual's role in that society can cause untold and lasting damage." - Sarah Gilmartin, Irish Times

  • "Beyond the drama and the puzzle, the short novel is an intriguing insight into customs and social expectations in rural Japan at this time. (...) By embedding his mystery in this post-feudal milieu, Yokomizo brought early 20th-century civic relationships to life in a vivid and entertaining way.This is one for fans of detective novels and of Japanese literature alike." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "Yokomizo teases the reader with a clear and not in the least helpful list of characters, and also supplies a meticulous illustration of the murder scene and its immediate surroundings. (That doesn't help much, either.) Despite his benevolent assistance, the solution to this mystery came as a complete surprise -- exactly what I asked for." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) stylish example of the classic locked room mystery (.....) The Honjin Murders is a virtuoso demonstration of his skill at the intricate reverse-engineering required to set up a puzzle that is as baffling on first reading as it is satisfying once its secrets are revealed. It is also a self-conscious tribute to his predecessors in the form. (...) The Honjin Murders has both the strengths and the weaknesses of the tradition it so cleverly, and self-consciously, invokes. It is heavy on ingenuity but light on humanity, sacrificing deep engagement with its characters to sustain our pleasure in treating their violent deaths as an intellectual exercise. The crime itself is so elaborate that it makes the murder in Dorothy Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon (famously mocked by Raymond Chandler as absurdly contrived) seem straightforward" - Rohan Maitzen, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Author Yokomizo is the background narrator of The Honjin Murders -- identifying himself, if not by name, as: "a writer of detective mysteries", and acknowledging that he has little first-hand knowledge of the case but rather has pieced it together from available information, most of it gleaned from F— -- "the man most directly connected with the case". (As it turns out, F— is also only indirectly the source; it is his father, Dr. F—, the former village doctor near where the crime occurred, from whom most of the information comes; like many involved in the story, however, at the time the account is written he was also already: "sadly departed"; the narrator relies extensively on Dr. F—'s notes, including quoting verbatim from them at some essential points; Dr. F—'s sketch of the area where the crime took place is also reproduced.)
       The crime took place in late November, 1937, and before he gets to what exactly happened the narrator repeatedly notes that this was a particularly gruesome crime -- "no ordinary murder". He kind of teases this out -- eventually going so far as to step and hold back yet again:

However, before I can get to the gory details of the murder, I must mention a few apparently trivial incidents that seem to have been some kind of prelude to what finally transpired.
       The narrator also notes some of the elements that attracted him to this particular crime:
A locked-room murder, a red-ochre-painted room and the sound of the koto ... all of these elements are so perfect -- too perfect -- like drugs that work a little too well.
       Right at the start, the mystery-writer describes his fascination with locked-room mysteries -- "a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point in his or her career" --; when he first learned of the case, he: "immediately racked my brain to think of any similar cases among all the novels I've read". Crime fiction continues to play a significant role in the story itself: one of the chapters is even titled: 'A Conversation about Detective Novels', and one of the sons of the household has a collection that contains nothing less than: "every book of detective or mystery fiction ever published in Japan, both domestic and foreign" -- source material for inspirations galore for clever crimes .....
       The murder takes place on the property of the Ichiyanagi family, in rural Japan. Though considered upstarts locally, the family was a wealthy one, with a reasonably long lineage -- in a place and time where lineage still (ridiculously) counts for something, both in the community and to the puffed-up family itself:
The reverence, respect and pride associated with being born into a family with distinguished ancestry are still alive and well in rural communities. [...] As far as the Ichiyanagi family was concerned, there was nothing in the world more important than being the descendants of the owners of a honjin. It was everything to them.
       For all that pride, they're not the most impressive bunch. Yes, one son is a doctor in Tokyo, and eldest son Kenzo, "the current master of the house", had been an academic in Kyoto before retiring back home for health reasons, but the large family seems to be fraying a bit at the edges. Still, a major change was coming: Kenzo, already forty years old, had decided to marry -- with the crime then taking place on his wedding night.
       The woman he marries is Katsuko Kubo -- and the problem with Katsuko is that, while her family has been very successful, she doesn't have any lineage:
[I]n the eyes of the Ichiyanagi family, it didn't matter how educated she was, how wise or intelligent, or how large a fortune she possessed -- the daughter of a tenant farmer would always be just that: the daughter of a peasant farmer. She had no family name, no pedigree, and they thought of her as no more than the child of Rinkichi Kubo, poor peasant farmer.
       To his credit, that doesn't bother Kenzo. (Less to his credit: other things -- similar nonsense -- do .....)
       The wedding is an ultra-minimalist affair -- "an extremely private gathering", in contrast to what was usually called for involving someone of Kenzo's ... lineage --, with pretty much only the few in-residence Ichiyanagi family members in attendance, along with a lone representative of the bride's family, her uncle, Ginzo Kubo. The crime then happens deep in the night, in the annexe house on the property, with screams, the sounds of a koto being plucked ("with wild abandon"), and snowfall. The scene found there -- in the locked building from which it seems impossible anyone could have escaped without leaving a trace -- is shocking: "All that was left was a tableau from hell".
       This is a mystery novel featuring Yokomizo's famed private detective, Kosuke Kindaichi -- but the man himself only appears on the scene eighty pages into the novel, summoned there by Ginzo Kubo, who had first encountered the young man when Kosuke was just another drug addict Japanese immigrant in the United States; Ginzo helped him get his act together, supporting his college education -- and, conveniently, now, years later, Kosuke had been visiting Ginzo in Osaka -- solving another case -- when Ginzo called upon him to help out here.
       At the beginning of the novel, a mysterious and distinctively three-fingered man had made an appearance locally, and his behavior and then some of the clues -- fingerprints, even -- seem to suggest some connection to what happened on the Ichiyanagi property. But the Ichiyanagis are a suspicious bunch too; as Ginzo complains to his detective-friend:
Everyone in this house is weird. I can't help but feel they're deliberately hiding something. I think they're protecting each other. Or they all suspect each other. There's a suspicious smell in the air and it's getting right up my nose.
       Kosuke of course eventually manages to put the pieces together -- and it's quite a few pieces. The locked-room explanation is ... elaborate; personally, I fail to see the appeal of the sub-genre, especially when it has to rely on such complicated explanations; in this instance it would also seem to fail one of the basic rules of this kind of mystery writing: the reader could never have figured it out themselves. (The explanation has to be really good to get away with that; to my mind, this one doesn't clear that bar.)
       But, as Yokomizo has Kosuke insist: "The true horror of this case isn't in the way it was done, but why it was done". Unsurprisingly, it boils down to:
This whole puzzle, all of the mystery in this case comes from that one thing. Lineage. The tragedy of the honjin.
       To which one is, of course, tempted to say they're only getting what they deserve. But a greater problem with the novel is for that to be more convincing and meaningful, the characters would have had to be much better developed. Instead, they remain two-dimensional ciphers, with what little there is to their characters only filled in after the (murder-)fact.
       In his eagerness to plot out a locked-room mystery Yokomizo paid too much attention to the logistics (and the red herrings -- though that part is reasonably well done) and far too little to the characters involved -- the essential basis for that why that is the 'true horror' of the case. From the shadowy three-fingered man to practically all the family members (except for the youngest girl, Suzuko, described in the character list as: "considered 'a bit slow'"), there's simply too little character-development in the story's build-up -- with what character-description there is then coming after the fact; so, for example, the three-fingered stranger is only actually identified after he is no longer in the picture.
       Seeing the wonderful library of detective fiction in the house, Kosuke swoons:
Among the books on Saburo's shelves were detective stories that also revolved around locked room murders. Should I chalk that up to mere coincidence ? Not at all. Up until now it seemed that this might have been a crime of opportunity, but wasn't this in fact a case where the murderer had put a lot of careful thought into his or her plan ? And was the blueprint of that plan in one of these novels ? Just to consider the possibility made me happier than I can tell you.
       Yokomizo seems to have been similarly giddy; like the murderer he also put a lot of thought into his plan -- and too much of that shows. Even -- or rather: especially -- as homage, to locked-room mysteries in general, The Honjin Murders strains too hard with its nods to the previous masters.
       It's too bad. The basic outlines of the story -- murder, motive, the burdens of tradition, rural life, suspicious strangers, and quirky family -- are good, with only the locked-room bit rather over-complicated, and Kosuke is a thoroughly entertaining character. But Yokomizo doesn't do nearly enough with almost all of this, leaving The Honjin Murders a reasonably enjoyable but also creaky blast-from-the-past, middling rather than a real stand-out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 May 2020

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The Honjin Murders: Reviews: Other books by Yokomizo Seishi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Yokomizo Seishi (横溝正史) lived 1902 to 1981.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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