Honkaku: a century of Japanese thrillers making readers guess | Books
After a day of happy wedding celebrations, a bloodcurdling 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 commit the deed, let alone escaped without a trace. How was this impossible crime committed?
It’s the chilling opening of 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 (another followed, and two more in progress). It’s also a perfect example of a honkaku mystery: a fascinating form of detective writing that first emerged in Japan in the 1920s and, thanks to a recent series of translations and re-editions, is now appreciated more than ever by 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 pure logical reasoning.” .
Honkaku’s stories have more in common with a game of chess than some modern thrillers, which can be filled with surprise twists and sudden revelations. In the honkaku, everything is transparent: no villain suddenly appears in the last chapter, no key clues are hidden until the last page. The writers of Honkaku were scrupulous about “playing it fair,” so clues and suspects were woven throughout 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 pseudonym 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’ detectives, the Baker Street Irregulars: the Shounen Tantei-Dan, or Boy Detectives Club.
Yoshitame, another early Honkaku writer, was working in the 1920s. Writing under the pen name Kōga Saburō, he used details from 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 was recently republished as part of the British Library’s Foreign Bodies anthology.)
But it was Yokomizo 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 in numerous film, manga and anime adaptations. Kindaichi is in his mid-twenties and dresses casually in a seedy 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 quintessentially Japanese perspective combined with the steel intelligence of a 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 honkaku writers by no means worked in a vacuum. Popular Western detective novels working in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Conan Doyle, Poe, and Gaston Leroux, have been 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 of The Murders of the Rue Morgue has also had a great influence. (Seen under 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 flood of thrillers set 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 in English too. When I spoke with Yokomizo’s grandson, On Nomoto, for a recent episode of my classic murder mysteries podcast, he told me that his grandfather had bought some popular European thrillers at secondhand markets in his hometown of Kobe, where Western sailors traded books for alcohol. The Honjin Murders is full of references to mystery authors, 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 state of mind of the small islands, but also to open their minds to other countries, ”he told me.
American author John Dickson Carr had a particularly strong impact on the honkaku. Almost all of his many novels feature a detective unraveling an “impossible crime” or a mystery in a closed room: 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, yet they are dead. These intricate puzzles became essential for Honkaku writers, who more often included impossible crimes 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 uniquely 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 newlyweds 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 at its heart a classic Golden Age storyline – a wealthy man leaves a complicated will that causes his heirs to drop like flies as a murderer tries to maximize their money. legacy – but also contains rich details of the Japanese aristocracy, which dissolved as society modernized.
And Yokomizo’s 1947 novel Gokumon Island (to be released in March 2022) features a murderer who kills according to a pattern – a familiar trope from the European mystery novel of the Golden Age. SS Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case uses nursery rhymes, Christie’s The ABC Murders are listed alphabetically – and Yokomizo confines all of his characters to a small Japanese island and shapes each murder scene after a line by a famous haiku. . One victim is hung upside down from a tree, another placed inside a large bell, and another dressed in a priestess costume. The restrictive rules of the Japanese wartime bill and the mental health issues faced by demobilized soldiers also provide an important backdrop for the plot.
The war weighed heavily on the honkaku. The conflict between Japan and China, then the entry of Japan into the Second World War in 1940, completely upset the genre, 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 “offensive to public morals”. Other writers, such as Yokomizo and Masayuki Jō, erred on the side of 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 genre boundaries: writers regularly incorporate supernatural elements and more comedy, sometimes veering into burlesque. 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 squeakier thrillers dominate the charts on classic thrillers, shin honkaku writers are among the most popular in Japan today.
Soji Shimada’s 1981 novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is a prime example, combining two narratives in 1936 and 1979. And Yukito Ayatsuji’s Bizarre House series, which began in 1987 and ended in 2012, in is 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 detectives on a trip to a remote island, the site of several murders unresolved. In the opening chapter, a character remarks, “Enough grainy realism please!” What detective stories need is a great sleuth, a mansion, a shady gang of locals, 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.