Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders, published in 1946, is one of the more celebrated examples and it’s even more celebrated as an example of a locked room puzzle. Louise Heal Kawai’s English translation has been published by Pushkin Vertigo.
The Ichiyanagi family were, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, the proprietors of a honjin or inn. But a honjin was not just an inn, it was an inn for members of the nobility travelling to and from Edo (the capital, now of course known as Tokyo). Owning a honjin conferred status and even to some extent membership of the nobility. So the Ichiyanagi family are a big deal in the district and are still fiercely proud of being descended from owners of a honjin. The latest heir, Kenzo, is about to marry Katsuko. Katsuko belongs to the Kubo family, wealthy farmers but of decidedly lower social status. The wedding has aroused much opposition within the Ichiyanagi family.
The bride and groom will spend their wedding night not in the rather grand main house but in the much smaller annexe house. They will not live to see the morning. Their lives will be cut short by brutal murder. When the bodies are discovered all of the doors and windows to the annexe house are locked from the inside.
There seems to be no mystery as to how the murderer got in. He got in the night before and hid. The footprints and other clues make that fairly obvious. How he got out again is however a baffling mystery.
The obvious suspect is a very disreputable man with only three fingers on one hand. He had been hanging around for several days and there is plenty of evidence suggesting that he was the murderer. There are also sound reasons to suspect that several other people have not been at all truthful in their accounts of their own movements.
Katsuko’s uncle and guardian, Ginzo, sends for a private detective, Kosuke Kindaichi. Kosuke Kindaichi is a rather colourful detective. He is very young and very scruffy and he stammers. He is also an ex-drug addict. He became addicted to drugs in San Francisco. He would have come to a very bad end had fate not stepped in in the form of a celebrated murder case. Kosuke Kindaichi solved the case and he made a discovery - being a detective is much more fun than using drugs.
Kindaichi is content to let the police gather the evidence. He then solves cases by making sense of evidence that the police are unable to make sense of. For all his eccentric appearance and habits this young man has a brilliant mind. He has another useful asset. He is a very pleasant and likeable young man. His charm even works on policemen who are only too happy to have his assistance on a case.
This is not just a locked room mystery, it’s a novel which is very ostentatiously and consciously a locked room mystery. It’s a bit like Penn Jillette explaining how Penn and Teller do their magic tricks, drawing attention to the fact that we are being tricked.
The actual solution to the locked room puzzle is extraordinarily ingenious and there’s lots of elaborate misdirection as well. Seishi Yokomizo goes to great pains at the end to explain how he accomplished some of this misdirection whilst still technically playing fair with us.
There is a theory that golden age detective stories are fundamentally conservative. The social order is undermined by murder but at the end of the story the social order is re-established, justice is done and we feel that everything is back to normal. The social order is secure. I certainly don’t get that feeling from this book. Maybe it’s a Japanese thing but I think it has more to do with the fact that the novel was written in the immediate aftermath of the war, with a society left in ruins. Nobody in 1946 could have predicted that Japan would not only survive but recover and thrive. The mood of this book is bleak and pessimistic. There’s a kind of epilogue to the novel that is unremittingly despairing.
I almost get the feeling that maybe his love for detective fiction was the only thing that kept Yokomizo going. Life is hopeless but if you immerse yourself in detective fiction it’s survivable. It was a grim period in his own life. As it happens things were about to get a whole lot better for him and he was about to achieve great success as a writer but at the time he sat down to write this book he seems to have been deeply pessimistic.
The Honjin Murders is a masterpiece of stage magic by a man who had absorbed the lessons taught by writers like John Dickson Carr and was confident enough to believe he could take them on at their own game. To a large degree he succeeds. Highly recommended.