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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 248…

Episode 248

And the TBR drops back down 1 to 208! I seem to be stuck there…

Here are a few more that should escape from the quagmire soon…

Fiction

The Island by Ana Maria Matute

Courtesy of Penguin Classics via NetGalley. I might not normally have chosen this one, but I’ve been keeping my eye out for fiction for my Spanish Civil War challenge, preferably written by Spaniards, and this fits the bill. And that’s half the fun of challenges – being tempted to go off the well-worn path…

The Blurb says: “This is an old and wicked island. An island of Phoenicians and merchants, of bloodsuckers and frauds.”

Ana María Matute’s 1959 novel (original title Primera memoria) is a stifling story of rebellious adolescence, narrated by Matia, as she struggles against her domineering grandmother, schemes with her mercurial cousin Borja and begins to fall in love with the strange boy Manuel.

Steeped in myth, fairy tale and biblical allusion, the novel depicts Mallorca as an enchanted but wicked island, a lost Eden and Never Never Land combined, where the sun burns through stained glass windows and the wind tears itself on the agaves. Ostensibly concerned with Matia’s anxieties about entering the adult world, this internal conflict is set against the much wider, deeper, and more frightening conflict of the civil war as it plays out almost secretly on the island, set in turn against the backdrop of the Inquisition’s mass burning of Jews in previous centuries. These two conflicts shimmer at the edges of Matia’s highly subjective account of her life on the island, where life is drawn along painful and divisive lines.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo via NetGalley. This and the next two are all from my 20 Books of Summer list. I’ve read and enjoyed a few contemporary Japanese crime novels but I think this is my first vintage one…

The Blurb says: Japan’s greatest classic murder mystery, translated into English for the first time.

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.

* * * * *

Fiction: Sychronised Reviewalong

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

Every review I’ve seen of this one has been glowing, so my expectations are stratospheric! I’m delighted that some of my blog buddies – Sandra, Christine and Alyson –  will be reading it at the same time, and we’ll be posting our reviews or, for non-bloggers, sharing our opinions in the comments of the reviews on 31st August. If you fancy joining in, you’ll be more than welcome! It’s very short…

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1920 two men, both war survivors meet in the quiet English countryside. One is living in the church, intent upon uncovering and restoring an historical wall painting while the other camps in the next field in search of a lost grave. Out of their meeting comes a deeper communion and a catching up of the old primeval rhythms of life so cruelly disorientated by the Great War.

* * * * *

Fiction

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Courtesy of Random House Transworld via NetGalley. I’m ashamed to admit that this one has been on my TBR since 2017 – one of the little backlog of review copies that got left behind. I don’t know why – it’s another most people have raved about – but somehow I have a kind of irrational feeling that I’m going to hate it, which is why I’ve kept putting it off. I hope I’m wrong!

The Blurb says: Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. At 33 years-old, she finds herself pregnant with the child of a 17 year-old Traveller boy, Martin Toppy, and not by her husband Pat. Melody was teaching Martin to read, but now he’s gone, and Pat leaves too, full of rage. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming, while the past won’t let her go.

It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a bold young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life. Following the nine months of her pregnancy, All We Shall Know unfolds with emotional immediacy in Melody’s fierce, funny, and unforgettable voice, as she contends with her choices, past and present.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?