December 13, 2019

The Honjin Murders (1946; 2019) - Seishi Yokomizo

"... a blood-curdling scream rang out, followed by the eerie strains of a koto being plucked with wild abandon."

A three-fingered man... the wild twang of koto strings... a katana thrust in the snow... in the annex-house of the former Ichiyanagi honjin, a pair of newlyweds lie dead in a pool of blood, with locked rain-shutters sealing the room, and nary a footprint to be found in the snow to mark the murderer's exit...

So plays out the central crime in Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders (Japanese title: 本陣殺人事件; Honjin Satsujin Jiken), newly translated by Louise Heal Kawai. The book is a veritable love-letter to the impossible crime genre, narrated by an unnamed writer of detective fiction from his own research on the case which occurred about a decade earlier (1937). He spends some time in the opening section contemplating which fictional works this "real-life" crime most evokes-- among them Van Dine's The Canary Murder Case and "the great" Carr's The Plague Court Murders-- before deciding that Leroux's Mystery of the Yellow Room "bears the closest resemblance, at least as regards setting and atmosphere: less so, the facts of the case." 

"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."

Of course, The Honjin Murders is neither a pastiche nor a formulaic copy of any of the aforementioned works, offering a problem whose solution is, in many ways, distinctly Japanese in how it ultimately unfolds. The story concerns the Ichiyanagi family, possessive of a certain nobility owing to their ancestors having been the proprietors of a honjin, a kind of lodging-house reserved for officials and other elite personages to stay on their way to and from the capital. The eldest son, Kenzo, is engaged to be married to Katsuko Kubo, a women of more modest background, for which reason the union is disapproved of strongly by his mother, Itoko; sister, Taeko, away from the action in Shanghai; and cousin, Ryosuke. Kenzo's brothers Ryuji, a doctor living in Osaka, and Saburo, a lounge-about himself obsessed with detective fiction, as well as his youngest sister Suzuko, are less resistant to Kenzo's choice. The bride's uncle, Ginzo Kubo, travels to the Ichiyanagi household for the wedding ceremony. But the night before the ceremony, another stranger turns up in the area, a shady, run-down looking man wearing a face mask, with a scar visible across his scruffy cheek, and only three fingers on his right hand, asking the way to the Ichiyanagi residence...

"This wasn't the kind of person one would expect to visit the Ichiyanagi family."

The next day, as preparations for the wedding are underway, this same man appears at the kitchen entrance of the residence and hands the cook a page torn from a diary to give to Kenzo. The latter man, upon reading it, appears disturbed, tearing the letter to shreds and stuffing it in the sleeve of his kimono. The ceremony proceeds as expected, with a koto being brought to the annex-house, where sister Suzuko as well as the new bride each perform a song on the instrument. Kenzo and Katsuko stay up late, as is the custom, serving drinks to the villagers in attendance, before finally retiring in the annex-house sometime after 2 AM. Not quite two hours later, screams can be heard coming from the annex in the main residence, along with erratic plucking of koto strings. Ginzo and Ryosuke are the first to reach the annex-house, finding a katana thrust in the snow outside, and the structure completely locked all around by the sealed rain shutters. The men use an axe to break a hole in the wall, with Ryosuke reaching in to unlock the shutters. Upon entering, they discover a grisly scene:

"Kenzo and Katsuko lay slashed and soaked in blood... What had happened to the heavenly dream that was supposed to be their wedding night? All that was left was a tableau from hell."

The couple, it turns out, were both killed by the katana that had been found plunged in the snow. Bloody fingerprints are found on a folding screen, which upon closer inspection show only three fingers, distorted by having had koto picks attached to them. A string on the koto has been snapped, and one of the bridges is missing. By all appearances, this mysterious three-fingered man, an apparent enemy from Kenzo's past, had lied in wait in a lavatory before emerging to commit the brutal crime when the newlyweds fell asleep. But, provided it was this man, how had he escaped so quickly from the locked house, without leaving any footprints behind?

The local police begin a capable investigation, but are quickly stymied by the strange details of the case. Why was a koto bridge removed, later to be found lying in a pile of leaves outside the house? Why was a sickle embedded high up in an adjacent camphor tree? Who tampered with Kenzo's diaries, removing and burning pages from years prior? It is the uncle of the bride, Ginzo, who summons the renowned young investigator Kosuke Kindaichi, whom he had supported through university in the US, and who just happened to be staying at his house in Okayama for a visit. A rather eccentrically-dressed man with a stammer, Kindaichi prides himself on his ability to use logic to piece together the elements of a crime and deduce the proper series of events giving rise to them, using "his head, instead of tape measures and magnifying glasses." He soon begins to draw attention to interesting (and confounding) details overlooked by the police, and sends them around to acquire information to confirm his hypotheses, before finally laying bare all the shocking details of the case.

I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons, not least the copious name-dropping of various mystery writers both famous and less so, as well as a number of Japanese writers hitherto unknown to me, as Kindaichi examines Saburo's library, which seems to contain "every book of mystery fiction ever published in Japan, both domestic and foreign." One book that wasn't mentioned-- and one wonders whether Yokomizo could possibly have been familiar with it, it having been published in the US only one year prior to this book, in 1945-- is Joel Townsley Rogers's The Red Right Hand. Certain key details in this book seemed to echo that work, even if the actual substance of the crimes and solutions are very different. The atmosphere here is wonderfully eerie, and there are many disparate details uncovered by Kindaichi that play a surprising role in the ultimate explanation of the events. An especially effective cliffhanger ends one chapter two-thirds into the book, where Kindaichi reveals to Ginzo (but not to the reader - yet) the horrible way in which Suzuko's recently-deceased kitten fits into the events, whereupon "all at once, the ground seemed to sway under his feet. In all his years on this earth, he never had and never would again experience a shock like this one." 

The solution to the impossible crime is workable, if a bit intricate. Luckily a floor plan of the annex and its surroundings is provided, which is especially useful given the likely unfamiliarity to most readers of the Japanese architectural elements involved. At the same time, I feel this plan is lacking in at least one important feature, which becomes clear once the solution is explained. Reading over certain passages in retrospect, I'm struck by the clever way in which Yokomizo has his narrator parade certain key details in plain sight, as well as having him justify certain choices of phrasing in retrospect. I'm unsure exactly how I feel about the motive, in the end, though a good deal of time is spent in justifying it; perhaps I am just a bit too removed from the cultural milieu to be fully convinced. I did notice one inconsistency with regard to method - we are told that the murderer got a particular idea from a particular situation, even though it is clear that the idea was already had prior to that situation (amusingly vague, I know, but I'm trying to avoid spoilers here). In any case, this is a small matter, and any shortcomings are totally overruled by the quality of the whole. 

It goes without saying that this book is required reading for any impossible crime enthusiast. Apparently, Yokomizo has featured Kindaichi in a total of 77 novels and short stories, this being one of only two currently translated into English (the other has previously appeared as The Inugami Clan, and is to appear in a new edition by Pushkin Vertigo next year as The Inugami Curse). Translations of a couple more titles exist in French and Spanish. Incidentally, I have in my library a copy of the Spanish translation of this novel (Asesinato en el Honjin y Otros Relatos), which contains two rather lengthy Kindaichi stories not available in English. Hopefully I can find the time shortly to read these and provide some more information about them here. 

Speaking of translations - I'd like to encourage readers of this new English edition to avoid reading the chapter titles up front, as one of them contains what I feel to be a semi-spoiler that is not present in the Spanish translation of that same chapter title (though I'm not sure which is more faithful to the original Japanese). 

PS. To the one or two readers who may be wondering, I do apologize that Ruination Street has become a veritable derelict alley over the past year. I started out with full intentions to make at least one post a month, but various job and family distractions, along with my inconsistent reading patterns and focus on non-genre works in foreign languages, have resulted in no posts for the last 11 months. I really do admire you bloggers who keep to a regular schedule. But I love this genre and hope to continue posting semi-regularly, as well as to continue the Carr Broken Down series (which may have to go on out of order, as opposed to the initial chronological plan - but we shall see).