Right now, we are in the throes of Kate’s Second Annual Best Reprint of the Year poll, and Kate has roped some of her fellow bloggers to post one or two selections from which all readers can select a winner. If, for some uncanny reason, you have decided not to vote for my first selection, then – well, what is wrong with you? Okay, maybe you don’t like non-fiction. In that case, like the used car salesman who only parlays models with a horn that goes honk-honkaku, well . . . have I got a book for you!
Thanks to publishers like Pushkin Press and Locked Room International, over the past couple of years, we classic fans have become all too aware of what we’re missing out on by not being able to speak or read Japanese. It seems that Japan is akin to a parallel universe, one where the Golden Age of Detection never died. Mystery clubs abound in universities – yes, young people not only read Agatha Christie and her ilk, they write books that honor the great mystery writers of yesteryear. The Japanese are especially fond of locked room conundrums and bizarrely wacko plots, and so the list of titles abounds with homages to John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen.
Murder mysteries permeate all of Eastern popular culture, with books adapted to film and television, and scores of anime and manga titles filled with fiendishly clever murder plots. One of the best and most popular of these is The Kindaichi Case Files, a virtual franchise of manga novels, anime series, video games, even live action movies and TV. The stories center around a high school student named Hajime Kindaichi, and . . . that’s all I know about that because, you see, very few of the manga have been translated, and the anime series has been hard for me to find.
The great Seishi Yokomizo
What I did not know until . . . well, last week, is that The Kindaichi Case Files have their roots in another character, a much beloved detective of Japanese literature: Kosuke Kindaichi is purportedly the grandfather of the bright but lazy Hajime and is no less brilliant or eccentric. Author Seishi Yokomizo, inspired by the work of Western authors, penned no less than seventy-seven cases featuring Kindaichi, and despite their cleverness and popularity, only one – The Inumagi Clan (or Curse) had been translated into English until now. Pushkin Press has just published Kosuke Kindaichi’s debut, The Honjin Murders (1946), beautifully translated by Louise Heal Kawai. The book is chock full of direct references and homages to some of the great mystery writers – Carr, Christie, Doyle, Leroux – but make no mistake: this book is an ineffably Eastern experience. The Honjin Murders steeps us in the world of a Japanese village, with its many customs and cultural hierarchies, and most of all its singular architecture. Houses play a crucial part in Japanese mysteries, and the compound that houses two branches of the Ichayinagi family and contains the annex house that serves as the gory scene of a locked room double murder is no exception.
The story is stuffed with a gallery of odd ducks, some of them possibly mad, others more likely lying somewhere on the autism spectrum. Kindaichi, who fits in this latter category, makes a moderately late entrance here, summoned by a relation of one of the murder victims to investigate this complex case. Kenzo Ichiyanagi, the eldest sons in a wealthy clan with a long feudal lineage, has decided to his family’s great surprise to get married, and his choice of bride – a rather plain schoolteacher very much his social inferior – has generated wails of protest from his widowed mother Itoko, his siblings, and his cousin Ryosuke, who lives on the estate with his wife and manages the family farm’s finances.
The vast estate crammed with eccentric relations is reminiscent of what you would find in Van Dine or early Queen. This is no mistake. The narrator, whose place in this story is mysteriously unexplained, takes care to show us the influence of Golden Age writers on the whole series of events. There’s even a convenient library of mystery novels in the study. Of equal significance, however, are the history, traditions, and psychology of Japan. The Ichiyanagis have a custom: on her wedding night, the bride must play a traditional musical instrument called a koto. Only this time when the koto gets played, it becomes a harbinger for violent death.
The koto, with its thirteen bridges, provides a central clue here!
I ate up both the Japanese aspects of the novel and the plentiful nods to Golden Age mysteries. We get a mysterious narrator, whose helpfulness in explaining Eastern ways is matched by their playfulness when it comes to Western mysteries. (All I will tell you is that this narrator has some tricks up their sleeve.) We get a cast of characters in the beginning, and Yokomizo provides the requisite map of the murder scene, which has markings for sixteen items of significance. There is a lot of snow where footprints ought to be, as well as prints of every variety that need explaining. There is a subsequent attack in the murder house, and a series of gruesome past events that seem to have no connection to the murders (but we’ve been reading this stuff for years so what do you think?!?) Still, a lot of what occurs was beyond my cultural ken, so rather than play armchair detective – despite the narrator’s frequent invitations to do so – I decided to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Like me, the local constabulary can make neither heads nor tails of what’s going on. They seek a mysterious scarred figure with only three fingers on his hand who has been seen lurking in the village and around the Ishiyanagi property, leaving fingerprints in all sorts of incriminatory places. Is he, as the authorities suspect, the murderer, or simply a non-Occidental version of Alexander Bonaparte Cust?
This Christmas, I want my own Kindaichi action figure!
I don’t want to give anything else away. Suffice it to say that the solution takes nearly a quarter of the novel to explain. I would respectfully suggest that if you don’t go into this expecting fair play, you will enjoy yourself a lot more. Some of the clues are quite clever, while others may mystify you; still more information is revealed far too late to be of help to those of us who like to match wits with the detective.
Still, the ending is quite fabulous in its sneaky, complicated way, and while I would ultimately place it below The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle in terms of my personal enjoyment, Kawai’s translation is a delight to read, Kindaichi is a fascinating figure and the fact that Honjin is the first of seventy-seven adventures is (fingers crossed) the harbinger of future translations to come. I can only imagine that, had Yokomizo been more frequently translated, Kindaichi might have taken his place in Western fandom alongside Dr. Fell and M. Poirot. And while I sense from reading Honjin that we Westerners might find some of the details of these mysteries to be, well, mystifying for cultural rather than evidential reasons, this series could comprise some of the most enjoyable cultural lessons I have ever had!
And I, for one, can’t wait for the re-release of Yokomizo’s 1951 masterpiece, The Inumagi Curse, by Pushkin Press early next year. Hmmm, I think I already have chosen one of my selections for Kate’s Reprint of the Year event in 2020!