Honkaku: a century of Japanese thriller that leaves readers guessing | Books
After a happy wedding day, a blood-curdling cry echoes through the night. The newlyweds are found dead in their beds, stabbed with a katana sword, now stuck in the snow outside. Their room was locked from the inside, and there is no way the murderer could have broken in to perform the deed, let alone escape without a trace. How was this impossible crime committed?
It’s the chilling start to The Honjin Murders, a masterful detective story by Japanese writer Seishi Yokomizo. First published in 1946, it was the first of his books to be translated into English, in 2019 (one more followed, with two more along the way). It’s also a perfect example of a honkaku mystery: a fascinating form of detective writing that emerged in Japan in the 1920s and, thanks to a recent round of translations and republications, is now more beloved by scholars than ever before. English readers.
Honkaku translates to ‘orthodox’ and refers to crafting devilishly clever and complex puzzle scenarios – like murder in a locked bedroom – that can only be solved by logical deduction. Writer Haruta Yoshitame, who is credited with the definition of honkaku, described it as “a detective story that primarily focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values entertainment derived from purely logical reasoning.”
Honkaku’s stories have more in common with a game of chess than some modern thrillers, which can be filled with twists and sudden revelations. In honkaku, everything is transparent: no villain suddenly appears in the last chapter, no key clues are retained until the last page. The writers of Honkaku were scrupulous about “playing it honestly,” so clues and suspects were woven through the plot, giving the reader a fair chance to solve the mystery before the detective did.
The very first story of honkaku is generally attributed to Tarō Hirai, who published The Two-Sen Copper Coin in 1923. Hirai wrote under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, a rough transliteration of Edgar Allen Poe. His Tokyo-based private detective, Kogoro Akechi, has a lot in common with Sherlock Holmes: eccentric and autonomous, smoker of exotic Egyptian cigarettes, expert in judo. Akechi even has his own version of Holmes’ sea urchin detective force, the Baker Street Irregulars: the Shounen Tantei-Dan, or Boy Detectives Club.
Yoshitame, another of the early Honkaku writers, was working in the 1920s. Writing under the pen name Kōga Saburō, he used the details of his daily work as an engineer to create highly technical plots with a strong scientific focus. (His 1930 story The Spider is a prime example, and has recently been reposted as part of the British Library’s Foreign Bodies anthology.)
But Yokomizo was the one who created a pop culture icon: The Honjin Murders marks the debut of its famous sleuth, Kosuke Kindaichi, who has appeared in 76 other books, as well as numerous film, manga and anime adaptations. Kindaichi is in his twenties and dresses casually in a shabby jacket, wooden clogs, and worn socks. His hair is still tangled under his wide-brimmed hat and he speaks with a stutter. He is the perfect embodiment of honkaku: a distinctly Japanese vision combined with the steel intellect of the Golden Age sleuth. By the time of his death in 1981, Yokomizo had sold over 55 million books; there is a museum dedicated to him in Tokyo.
The earliest writers of honkaku did not work in isolation. Popular Western writers working in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Conan Doyle, Poe, and Gaston Leroux, were great inspirations. Conan Doyles’ Holmes stories were first translated and serialized in Japan in the 1890s, and quickly found a passionate fan base. The “ratiocination”, or rational deduction, of C. Auguste Dupin in Poe’s 1841 account The Murders of the Rue Morgue was also very influential. (Seen as Hirai’s pen name, Edogawa Rampo.) And the “golden age” of detective fiction was underway in Britain, with writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh responding to the postwar demand for reassurance, gripping readings with a stream of whodunnits in English country houses, luxury trains, theaters and ships. They also created some memorable detectives who still have legions of fans, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Lord Peter Wimsey.
We know that Hirai, Yoshitame and Yokomizo read these titles in translation, and sometimes also in English. When I spoke with Yokomizo’s grandson, On Nomoto, to a recent episode of my classic murder mysteries podcast, he told me that his grandfather bought popular European whodunnits from thrift stores in his hometown of Kobe, where Western sailors traded books for alcohol. The Honjin murders are replete with references to perpetrators, both Japanese and European; Nomoto said it was a deliberate attempt by his grandfather to cultivate an international pedigree for the mystery of the honkaku. “He really wants to show not only that he’s knowledgeable, but that he wants the Japanese to open their minds. Not only the mentality of the small islands, but also to open their minds to other countries, ”he told me.
American author John Dickson Carr had a particular impact on the honkaku. Almost all of his many novels feature a detective unraveling an “impossible crime” or a closed bedroom mystery: a plot where the crime initially seems physically impossible. The bloody wedding night in The Honjin Murders is a good example: there is apparently no way a murderer could have entered the room to stab the newlyweds, but they are dead. These intricate puzzles have become central to Honkaku writers, who have included impossible crimes more often than their British counterparts. Christie wrote only a handful of them – Christmas and the murder of Hercule Poirot in Mesopotamia being the best-known examples – while almost all of Yokomizo’s books include them.
But what makes honkaku so distinctly Japanese are the cultures, traditions, and politics exhibited in the plots. The Honjin Murders, published in 1946 but set in 1937, also shines on class anxiety in prewar Japan. The murdered bride and groom come from very different backgrounds: Kenzo heads an aristocratic family obsessed with protecting his dignity and his lineage, while his new wife Katsuko comes from a poor background and works as a teacher. . Another Yokomizo novel, The Inugami Curse, has a classic Golden Age storyline at its heart – a rich man leaves a complicated will that causes his heirs to drop like flies as a murderer tries to maximize their heritage – but also contains rich details about the Japanese aristocracy. , which dissolved as society modernized.
And Yokomizo’s 1947 novel Gokumon Island (to be released in March 2022) features a murderous murderer in a pattern – a familiar trope from European crime fiction of the Golden Age. SS Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case uses nursery rhymes, Christie’s ABC Murders is alphabetized – and Yokomizo confines all of his characters to a small Japanese island and shapes each murder scene after a line from a famous haiku. One victim is hanged upside down from a tree, another placed inside a large bell and another dressed in the costume of a priestess. Japan’s draft wartime restrictive rules and the mental health issues faced by demobilized soldiers also provide an important backdrop to the plot.
War dominated the honkaku. The conflict between Japan and China, and then Japan’s entry into World War II in 1940, completely changed the genre, which came to be considered too Western and decadent by the authorities. In 1939, Hirai was ordered to withdraw from sale his work published under the name Edogawa Rampo because it was deemed “prejudicial to public morals”. Other writers, such as Yokomizo and Masayuki Jō, erred in caution and published only historical fiction during the war years.
But honkaku quickly recovered. In 1947, Hirai, Yoshitame, and others founded the Mystery Writers of Japan, a literary society to share stories and promote form. (As Edogawa Rampo, Hirai was inaugurated as the first president.) Soon, the group published a regular annual ranking of the best honkaku stories and rewarded the best with prizes. A version of this company still exists today.
Although the popularity of the honkaku plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s when contemporary police procedures entered the scene, the style rebounded as cheaper paperbacks made the classics more accessible. A new generation of detective writers has started playing with form and created a whole new genre: the shin honkaku, or “new orthodox”. While many elements of honkaku remain, shin honkaku has a slightly looser attitude towards the boundaries of the genre: writers regularly incorporate supernatural elements and more comedy, sometimes twirling. There is even a whole sub-genre of shin honkaku stories where the victims come to life and investigate their own murders. While in the UK and US, where crueler thrillers dominate the charts over classic whodunnits, shin honkaku writers are some of the most popular in Japan today.
Soji Shimada’s 1981 novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is a prime example, combining two stories in 1936 and 1979. And Yukito Ayatsuji’s Bizarre House series, which started in 1987 and ended in 2012, is one of them. another: the first book, The Decagon House Murders, is a thrilling tribute to Christie’s And Then There Were None, following a group of amateur sleuths on a trip to a remote island, the site of several murders not resolved. In the first chapter, a character remarks: “Enough realism, please! What detective novels need is a great sleuth, a mansion, a shady cast of residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes, and never-before-seen murder tricks. It is impossible not to agree.
- The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (translated by Hong-Li Wong) The Honjin Murders (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) and The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo (translated by Yumiko Yamakazi) and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada (translated by Ross ) and Shika MacKenzie) are all published by Pushkin Vertigo. Yokomizo Eight Tombs Village will be released in December 2021.
- Caroline Crampton is an author, journalist and host of the Shedunnit podcast.