The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Screams in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On the night of their wedding, Kenzo and his new bride Katsuko have retired to the annexe of the family home after a day of ritual celebration. The remaining guests are staying with the rest of the family in the main house, but they are startled awake in the middle of the night by screams and the sounds of a koto (a Japanese stringed instrument) twanging wildly. By the time they get to the annexe, it’s too late – Kenzo and Katsuko are dead, brutally slain by someone wielding the katana which is usually kept in the main house. But the annexe is sealed – all doors and windows locked from the inside – and the snow which has just fallen is pristine, with no trace of footmarks. How did the murderer get in and out, and who is the strange three-fingered man who’s been seen in the neighbourhood recently, asking for directions to the house?

The author, through his narrator, is quite open about having been influenced by many of the classic locked room mysteries of the Golden Age, giving special mention to The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux and the works of John Dickson Carr, an accepted master of this form of mystery. I haven’t read a lot of Carr, but for my money Leroux has clearly been the main influence on the plot and style of this one.

As so often happens with locked room mysteries, I felt that characterisation and motive came in as poor seconds to the intricacy of the way in which the murder was contrived. That’s not to say that the plot is weak – in fact, the reason for the murder is interesting and based firmly in the mores of the society at that time, and indeed it depends strongly on an understanding of the character of the murderer. But I felt these were presented too much as a given, rather than the reader learning about them for herself by observing the characters interact. Without getting into spoiler territory, so forgive vagueness, I also felt that one of the other characters’ behaviour was stretched well beyond the limits of credibility purely because s/he had to act in the way s/he does to make the murder method work. However, as I said, this is a common occurrence in locked room mysteries, and no worse in this one than in many others – it’s just not a sub-genre I’m particularly fond of.

The translation by Louise Heal Kawai is mostly very good, flowing and readable without any feeling of clunkiness. However the translator has chose to leave too many Japanese terms for my taste – I can see that this keeps the Japanese flavour better, but often I simply didn’t know what was being described and nor did my built-in Kindle dictionary. Sometimes, she would explain a word on its first appearance, but not always, and even when she did it meant I frequently had to search back to remind myself. This is a subjective criticism, though, and it certainly wasn’t a big enough problem to seriously affect either my understanding or enjoyment of the book.

The all-important murder method is extremely convoluted, and rather depends on a fortuitous fall of snow at exactly the right moment, which felt a little bit like cheating. However, in general the plot is fair play – the clues are all given, although this poor reader missed nearly every one!

Overall, then, I enjoyed this short novel with a few reservations, and I’m sure it will appeal even more to real aficionados of the locked room mystery who might be more interested in the method than the characterisation. And it did make me go to youtube to find out what a koto looks and sounds like…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book 8 of 20

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45 thoughts on “The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

  1. I think I like locked room stories a bit more than you do, FictionFan. That said, though, I agree that characters matter. It’s so important that they feel like actual people, and that the reader learn about them, just as we learn about new people we meet, if that makes any sense. The Japanese setting interests me, as do the references to culture and mores. Hmm…I can see why you had some reservations (I like my disbelief right with me when I read!), but I’m glad you found a lot of good in the story, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s that I’m never really interested in solving the puzzle. Even in whodunits, I’m actually always a bit disappointed if I work it out – I prefer the detective to amaze me. But the locked room bit of this was very well done, although you’d have to be Heath Robinson to work it out, I think! And it did have a distinctly Japanese feel, before their society went into total meltdown, so it was a good contrast to some of the contemporary Japanese crime fiction I’ve read. I think you’d enjoy it if you every find time for it!

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  2. It makes sense that the emphasis would be on societal mores and the intricacy of the plot more than on the characters. I can’t help thinking of films I’ve seen and also information gleaned from a friend who lived near Tokyo for ten years. (The koto was played in some of those films.) Glad you enjoyed it!

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    • It did have a distinctly Japanese feel and was an interesting contrast to some of the modern Japanese crime fiction I’ve read. As soon as I heard the koto I realised I’ve heard it many times as backing music in various Japanese things without ever knowing what instrument it was. It looks amazing – six strings on the guitar was hard enough for me!

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  3. I’m very fond of a locked room mystery so this really appeals! Good to hear you enjoyed it despite some reservations. Fortuitous snow is a bit of a cheat but often with these types of mysteries I’m already in an indulgent mood when I pick them up so I can be more forgiving than I would normally.

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    • Yes, I often give a pass to things in vintage crime that I would reprimand an author sharply for in contemporary crime – so unfair! 😉 If you like locked room mysteries, then I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy this – the solution to the “how” bit is fiendishly complicated!

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    • I was too, and as soon as I heard it I realised I’ve heard koto music often as background in various Japanese things without ever thinking about what kind of instrument was being played. It’s an odd combination of being very calming but also a bit spooky-sounding…

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    • I find these ones with elaborate methods a bit too unbelievable – I doubt if many murderers would really go to these lengths! But otherwise I did enjoy this – it had a nicely distinctive Japanese feel.

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  4. I rather enjoy locked room mysteries. Perhaps it’s the puzzle that appeals. Still, I agree that this one sounds like it falls short in characterization, and I’m a firm believer in not having a lot of fortuitous stuff happening to force the plot to make sense. Oh, and having to keep looking words up can be aggravating, too. Probably won’t be one I read, though when you first mentioned it, it sounded intriguing.

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    • I loved the koto so I was glad the book had driven me to check it out! As soon as I started listening, I realised I’d heard it many times as background music in various Japanese things without ever bothering to wonder what kind of instrument was being used.

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  5. I’m already feeling like I’m in a locked room…and have been since mid-March, so please don’t fault me for wanting a read that offers a bit more expansiveness. Put differently, perhaps escapist elements? …maybe where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play…..or at least a lake, a glen, some sunshine….

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  6. We had similar feelings about this one, I think. I enjoyed it, but I also felt that the characters and motives took second place to the technical descriptions of how the murder was carried out. I missed most of the clues as well!

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    • I find that’s the drawback of locked room mysteries in general – the authors spend far more time setting up their fiendish contraptions than they do on the characters. However I still enjoyed it, and it did introduce me to the koto!

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  7. Good to hear you mostly enjoyed this Japanese mystery. I have been browsing around a bit and apparently The Devotion of Suspect X is the Japanese crime fiction most people recommend to start with. Is that one you’ve read already?

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    • I did read it ages ago – pre-blog it appears. But I seem to remember not being as impressed by it as most people were (what’s new? 😉 ) – it dragged a bit and I didn’t feel it gave much insight on Japanese society. However it was a major blockbuster so don’t be put off by me! I haven’t read a lot of Japanese crime but I’ve liked both of Kanae Minato’s books – Confession and Penance. And I especially liked Parade by Shuichi Yoshida – https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/parade-by-shuichi-yoshida/

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      • Haha, personally I think it’s a good thing, we don’t all like the same books. How boring would that be! 😒 And you haven’t put me off, I might still give it a go. Parade sounds intriguing!! Not sure I care for literary fiction in my mysteries, though 😉 Kanae Minato sounds worth checking out – had a quick look at Goodreads. I may soon have to start a TBR 😳😅

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        • The Kanae Minato books are certainly more traditionally mysteries, but more of the psychological kind than straight whodunit style. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them and wish they’d translate more of both her and Yoshida…

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  8. This sounds interesting – I’m not in general a big locked room mystery person for exactly the reasons you give, but I did really love The Mystery of the Yellow Room the first time I read it, so this appeals more than most.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I felt this was very like the style of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, without feeling in any way like a copy. The same idea of a brilliant young amateur crime-solver and the locked room aspect, though totally different, had the same kind of elements to it somehow. So I think you probably would enjoy this one!

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  9. I could take or leave Locked Room Mysteries to be honest, and the thin characterisation and inconsistancies within the translation of this one don’t sound especially appealing. I am keen to read Japanese literature though, so I might still end up reading this some time.

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  10. The sound of that instrument, the Koto, is the PERFECT soundtrack to a murder! Without even watching that youtube vidoe, the way you described it twanging while people screamed was absolutely chilling! I love the idea of this book for that reveal alone…

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s something eerie about the music, isn’t there, even though it’s also very calming. The actual murder scene in the book was well done, and there are a couple of later equally spooky ones… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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