Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders is a bloody locked-room whodunnit containing a lot of the typical tricks of our favorite murder mysteries. Like the best of the genre, it carries with it the somber feeling of old wounds causing present-day murder while still being self-aware enough to discuss it’s own genre playfully. (I don’t even care about the trope of murder-mystery fanatics involved in a murder mystery and yet I’ve done it in each one of my books!)
The Problem: On their wedding night, Kenzo and Katsuko retire to the Ichiyanagi annexe house where they will remain for the rest of their tragically short lives. Both have been murdered with a katana which is found outside in the snow without a single footprint anywhere near it. The doors were bolted, the windows were latched…do I need to go on? There are some footprints found nearby and some fingerprints. A set of three fingerprints to be exact. Funnily enough, there was a mysterious three-fingered man who had been asking for directions to the house. The murder is scene is impeccably described and we get a nice little map to mull over.
The Investigation: This is my favorite element of the book. The revelations come in layers, simultaneously deepening the mystery and moving the investigation forward. We get a police inspector who is not idiotic and a private detective who is both believable and brilliant. The pace of the sleuthing (usually a bad mystery’s downfall) is pitch-perfect, never falling prey to unimportant questioning or idle chit chat. You’ll find yourself happily drawn into the narrative.
The Solution: It’s solid, not brilliant but certainly not a let down. There are certain ungointoable details which might rankle some of you more than other; however, the solution is incorporated into the story so well. And this (after 4 years of reading and writing impossible crime) is more important to me than just a brilliant solution. It must feel right for the story being told. The solution feels right for this story. And the problem is just so damned good — the better the problem, the more willing I will forgive any holes/disappointment in the solution.
The Translation: There an old observation about film editing. It’s impossible to properly judge the work of an editor without access to the raw materials. The fact that a film is comprehensible at all, might be down to a brilliant editor performing magic with horrible footage. Conversely, there are great films that could be improved with a better editor.
The same principle could be applied to translations. Unless I learn Japanese and compare the texts, I cannot properly judge the job done here in capturing the author’s voice and intentions. Nor can I comment on the accuracy of furniture, clothing, or any of the other hundreds of minutiae involved in portraying cultural details that may not easily translate.
What I can say is that Louise Heal Kawai’s work here (and in Murder in the Crooked House) is remarkably smooth and shows a lot of personality. There were never any moments when I noticed any awkward dialogue or narration. She has described a bit about the process and typical hurdles in this In Gad We Trust podcast which I would highly recommend.
And, obviously, I highly recommend The Honjin Murders.