Seishi Yokomizo’s 19461 The Honjin Murders is the first novel in the seventy-seven volume Kosuke Kindaichi detective series. The 2019 English translation is by Louise Heal Kawai.
Kenzo Ichiyanagi’s wedding will be remembered for decades. Not for the happy marriage that followed (it didn’t). Not for the Ichiyanagi clan’s misgivings about Katsuko, the bride-to-be. It will be remembered for the brutal deaths of groom and bride on their wedding night — that, and the fact that their dead bodies were found in a room from which egress appeared to be impossible.
All signs point to a certain suspect: a badly scarred, three-fingered man recently seen asking about the Ichiyanagi family. But the purported killer is nowhere to be seen. Also, nobody can figure out how the killer could have gotten out of a room locked from the inside. The discovery of the murder weapon thrust into the snow in the middle of an otherwise untouched snow-covered garden adds to the puzzle.
Inspector Isokawa is baffled. As is traditional for the mysteries of the time2.
Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo summons his friend Kosuke Kindaichi to help. Ginzo met the younger man when Kosuke was a drug-addled wastrel in the United States. He helped set Kosuke on a path to a more respectable life. The former drug-addict has found that detection is more stimulating than drugs, not to mention far more lucrative. Kosuke is just the man to make sense of the inexplicable.
Kosuke, an avid mystery fan, immediately realizes he is dealing with that classic of the mystery genre, the locked room mystery. Two dead bodies in a room from which escape is impossible, surrounded by untouched snow across which nobody could have walked without leaving a trace, apparently committed by a memorably scarred man who seems to appeared out of nowhere to kill and vanished once more. The facts don’t seem to make sense, but the corpses make a good case that murder has in fact occurred.
Facts are facts. Interpretation, on the other hand, is far trickier. Luckily for everyone save the guilty, Kosuke is particularly talented at looking past appearances for hidden truth.
Many works require the reader to imagine that the genre to which the work belongs does not exist in the narrative universe. Thus, protagonists in zombie apocalypses are always completely unaware of the dos and don’t of zombie apocalypses, characters march cheerfully on-board generation ships despite the near certainty their trip will end in tears, and murderers set out to commit locked room murders unaware that of their legions of predecessors.
Not so for The Honjin Murders. Not only is Kosuke an avid fan of murder mysteries, but so are members of the Ichiyanagi’s household. The detective cheerfully discourses on the locked room mystery in general and a number of examples in particular. If some fictional killer has left a dead body in a sealed room, odds are very good the widely read detective knows of the case.
In contrast to many sealed-room stories, the novel provides a reasonable answer for why anyone would bother to set up what has to be a carefully staged scene3. After all, the odds of getting away with murder drop precipitously if the investigators go into the case aware there is something bizarre going on, that there is some deeper truth hidden out of sight. The guilty had good reason to leave matters as they did, as Kosuke reveals.
This short mystery first published as a serial soon after the end of World War Two, It’s a cozy. True, a terrible crime has been committed — several, in fact — in a manner calculated to obfuscate the truth. Nevertheless, the universe favours righteousness and all that is needed to reveal what actually happened is one observant bookworm armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of his field.
1: The ebook says The Honjin Murders first appeared in 1973 but other sources consistently place initial publication much earlier. I think the 1973 date must be for the first book publication, and the 1946 date the start of the magazine run.
2: You might be interested in this essay: https://crimereads.com/reviving-the-traditional-mystery-for-a-21st-century-audience/
3: There is an 87th Precinct novel featuring a locked room murder. This delights the detective, because the more staged the scene, the more opportunities to leave damning clues.