The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai – review

Published by Pushkin Press

Publication date – 5 Decemeber 2019

Source – review copy

In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis around the village.

Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music – death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.

Kenzo Ichiyanagi is to be married to Katsuko Kubo, despite his family’s initial objections to the match. The Ichiyanagis are a proud family, descended from wealthy Honjins and see the match as beneath the head of the clan. The wedding goes ahead but tragedy strikes on the night of the wedding when the betrothed couple are found murdered in their house, all entrances and exits locked. How did the killer escape and who was playing the koto heard at the time of the murder? Was it linked to the appearance of the three fingered man, who’d been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis?  Famed private detective Kosuke Kindaichi is called in to investigate.

Told by an unnamed narrator the reader is taken back to the time of the murder. We are introduced to the characters, and helpfully there is a character list at the beginning of the book, helpful for this reader at least who kept forgetting who belonged to which family.

I enjoyed the setting of the book very much. It was fascinating to see a little glimpse of life in pre-war Japan, at a time when old traditions were slowly being replaced by perhaps more westernised ways. There is still signs that the country is clinging to the feudal system. The Honjin may no longer exist but the family still retains that aloofness and lofty position in local society.

There is a stark contrast between the Ichiyanagi family and Uncle Ginzo, the uncle of Katsuko . The former are reserved, closed in and showing little emotion, their shock almost glossed over. Ginzo  is more open (to the reader at least) about his sadness at the death of his niece. It is he who calls for the help of his protege Kosuke Kindaichi.

Kindaichi reminded me very much of Columbo, the eponymous detective brilliantly portrayed by Peter Falk. Kindaichi is described as scruffy with wrinkled clothes. He has the habit of scratching his head and rumpling his hair when he thinks, all of which brought the image of the LA detective to mind. I kept expecting Kinaichi to say “just one more thing”. He doesn’t appear until nearly half way through the story but then drives the narrative forward. His fame has followed him from Tokyo and the police are eager to have him help out in solving these impossible murders.

The Honjin Murders is an ode to the locked room mysteries favoured in earlier detective fiction. Here there is the murder of two people, seemingly impossible as there was no means of escape for the murderer, though no trace can be found of the culprit. It is very much a matter of wits will win, thoughtful consideration by Kindaichi reveals how it was done, without reverting to the mechanical methods used by contemporaries that he gently ribs in his tale.

The author clearly had a love of crime fiction. He often lists the names of crime authors, a who’s who of the big hitters in the genre as he sees it. It was somewhat heartwarming to see the love of the genre shine through and it certainly led to me wanting to read the works of the authors detailed.

An interesting, intriguing first outing for Kindaichi. I’ll be seeking out the other works of Seishi Yokomizo in the future.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. This is getting a lot of blogging love, Janet – I really do need to track it down because it sounds like a marvellous read (plus I used to love Columbo!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent! I won a copy of this before Christmas and now I’m really looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds wonderful! I’m always interested in Pushkin and a Columbo-esque detective gets my vote 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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