THE REPRINT THAT JJ WILL LOVE: The Honjin Murders

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!

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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.

image                                                         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.

Japanese_Koto                    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?

kosuke-kindaichi-795845ce-a9fd-4190-a3f3-e40f9f6b55e-resize-750                               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!

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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!

32 thoughts on “THE REPRINT THAT JJ WILL LOVE: The Honjin Murders

  1. I think I’m right in saying that the only honkaku I’ve read is The Ginza Ghost collection and The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi, and I found the cultural elements of them to be fascinating (if you told me I’d read a book about a mysterious locked-bathroom murder and find the opening 40 page dissertation on the history and culture of tattoos the most interest part I would never have thought it possible…). So I’m hopeful for this one on the same basis — I mean, the central mystery sounds wonderful, too, but the cultural background is really what makes those earlier stories stand out from the (no less ingenious) shin honkaku that LRI and the likes have been bringing us lately.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I have frankly been reticent about reading Takagi‘s books. I have heard that the translations are tough to get through, and I seem to recall that you decided not to review Murder in the Crooked House because of a strongly negative reaction. Ho King’s comment on this is fascinating, But it worries me that publishers will not think English speaking readers interested enough in Eastern culture to buy more titles. I know that the dying messages I find in episodes of Case Closed can be unfathomable! So I’m with you, JJ: I urge my fellow readers to buy out these titles and make a sign that we all want more!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The translation is definitely a factor in that Takagi, but it’s also a book I’d be interested to reread since I’d not really any understanding of the context in which it was being written when I read it. When I’ll get round to rereading it is anyone’s guess, but “in the next 10 years” would feel optimistic.

        Murder in the Crooked House is…well, it’s Shimada, and as such you either sign up to it or you really don’t. I think I might view Shimada how others tend to vacillate on Paul Halter: when he’s good, I love him, but sometimes he goes so wildly overboard that it becomes difficult to keep on signing up to the OTT nature of it all. Crooked House and ‘The Executive Who Lost His Mind’ are very much a case of the latter for me, but I do hope we see more of his novels brought across, since the guy’s wonderful when he hits (‘The Running Dead’, for instance, is a piece of genius).

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m so glad Tattoo Murder pays off as I have been off by its shear size, and worried that I would be traveling through to get to the solution. But that it’s the other way around is refreshing. The Judge Dee booked have this vibe too, albeit a little more unrefined.

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  2. This first Kindaichi novel is, in a way, somewhat different from most of the other books in the series as most of them, don’t actually feature the kind of mechanical impossible situations like the one you see in this novel. They however do build a lot on the rural traditional/historical modes as seen in this novel (most of the other books are about motives based on insanely complex family relations, with the individual murders being more show than something technical like in this novel).

    It also appears that a lot of people were actually quite glad when this novel got its first visual adaptations (movies/drama), as it’s a lot easier to understand what happened when you actually see it on the screen.

    As for the Kindaichi Case Files anime, you can see the whole Kindaichi Returns series for free and no sign-up (but with some commercials) on Crunchyroll. It adapts quite a lot of the more recent stories.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I know you mentioned Crunchyroll before, Ho-Ling, And I don’t remember what the problem was for me there. I will definitely research this some more. Given how limited access to honk sky is for me, I want to experience all that I can!

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    1. It isn’t that I don’t think you will like it, Kate, but there are elements to the “how” that feed into the GAD naysayers’ opinion that classic detective fiction is ridiculous. The other elements of the solution are fascinating, combining “stuck in its time and place” issues with the 1940’s fascination with psychology. Here I found parallels to the NextGen classic authors, like McCloy, Fremlin and Millar. But throughout there was the sense that the narrator was playing a classic game with us, and this is stressed in the final pages. I hope you will read it!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Well, I’ve just read it, and I’ll review it when I work out what I think about it. I loved how the culture is essential to the plot but the logistics of the impossible crime and the motivations of one character… haven’t quite decided yet.

      Oh, and is this really a Reprint? It’s a first translation, surely, not a reprint. Not that I’m looking for reasons to disqualify any titles written by a certain BF

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      1. I figured you would be the one to come up with this flummery in your insane desire to replace real crime fiction everywhere with BF titles!! Will no one stop this madman???

        The book was published in 1946 and again in 1973, I believe. It has a publishing history. Nobody said anything about languages in the rules. Watch your Taskmaster, boy!

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      2. Well, this “madman” has so widely publicised the author Brian Flynn during the past year or so that he has virtually drilled the name of the hitherto obscure author into the minds of the readers ! I therefore fear that both the BF titles will get a good number of votes in the poll! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi there, Brad. Thank you for the review. A couple of comments – first of all I wanted to alert you that the Inugami Curse to be released by Pushkin Vertigo in February will not be a new translation, but is the same as The Inugami Clan, previously released by another publisher. I’d hate for people to buy it expecting a fresh version. (But of course if you haven’t already got it, it’ll be a great read.)
    The other thing I would like to bring up is that while you thank the publisher for bringing out the book in English, it was disappointing for me as the translator not to receive a name credit. To reproduce a book in another language takes not only reading, but also research into history and culture to ensure accuracy. Then finally writing and rewriting over several months to find the right tone and phrase. You write that “it’s a breeze to read” and that makes me happy that I did my job well. May I urge you (and all bloggers) in the spirit of fairness, to always #namethetranslator (Of course it would also help if publishers would put translators’ names in an easy-to-find place on the cover, but that is a separate struggle.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Louise, the really sad thing about your comment is that I meant to do this and stupidly forgot. I am out and about right now, but when I get home I am going to re-edit my piece. You did a brilliant job with this one, and of course you deserve credit for it. And I want to echo your comment to my fellow bloggers: we need to give credit to the translators, so that they will cheerfully undertake this enormous task again and again and bring more mysteries from around the world to our attention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you , Brad, so much for your kind additions to your blog piece. TBH a name credit is all that I wanted, but praise is always very much appreciated.

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      2. Well, Louise, I wasn’t overcompensating. I have commented before in the negative about translations, and here I enjoyed the readability and the way you managed to translate not only language but a sense of culture. So, bear with me and happy holidays! 🙂

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  4. I don’t think this ever was honored by Honkaku… but I very strongly recommend The Master Key, by Masako Togawa. It is an excellent mystery complimented by exceptional characters. A good story and quite a facile, intimate look into the characters’ lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Because of your review I bought this very cheaply as an ebook and as you say, it’s a breeze!
    The mechanics of the solution are very Carr-Ian but the rest is very Japanese and charmingly so although I did have a very slight problem with different people having very, to this western reader, similar looking names .
    My first Japanese read and hopefully won’t be my last.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. This sounds absolutely stonking, and I continually happy that a publishing house with as much credibility as Pushkin Press have been working to put these works out.

    I have this dream one day of finding all the Kindaichi case files manga in one cheap ebay bid or something. Alas over the years even one manga costs about £30!!

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    1. Keep hanging out with JJ: he manages to find a huge trove of THREE INVESTIGATORS in a bin somewhere. Things like that always happen to him. He’s in with the big guys. You should hear how he pronounces Paul Halter’s last name!!!

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  7. Since the quality of translations came up … the translation by Yumiko Yamazaki of “The Inugami Clan” published by Stone Bridge Press was in my opinion very smooth. It is good to hear from Louise that the upcoming re-issue by Pushkin uses the same translation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear that, Christophe. I’ve been unable to get hold of a copy of the original edition
      so I’m waiting until Pushkin releases it.

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