Honkaku. My Achilles’ heel. If I had to choose only one genre of books to read and give up everything else, it would be honkaku. Roughly translating to ‘orthodox’ in English, it is a Japanese school of writing which is somewhat equivalent to the classic ‘whodunnit’ genre in the West. Honkaku was inspired by the Golden Age of Western Detective Fiction. The novels written in this style abide by ‘fair play’ rules, which means that all the clues necessary for the reader to solve the murder are present in the text. It is a game for the readers to unravel the mystery before the in-universe detective. Fans of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Arthur Conan Doyle will love honkaku mysteries.
Seishi Yokomizo is one of the most famous names in this genre. His eccentric and scruffy detective Kosuke Kindaichi appears in 77 novels, but only five have been translated to English so far. Over the past week, I read the first four in the series.
The Honjin Murders introduces the reader to Kindaichi who has just finished solving his first major case which helped begin his reputation as a genius detective. Told by an unnamed narrator, the story has all the necessary ingredients for a locked room mystery. A horrible murder, a beautiful, isolated old mansion nestled in the hills, a mysterious three-fingered man, and spooky music from a koto (a Japanese musical instrument) that seems to be a harbinger of tragedy. As with all honkaku novels, it is definitely possible to arrive at the answer with the information provided. Though, in all honesty, I did not manage to solve this one. The multiple twists and hints are exceptionally delightful during a re-read though, because you can take a closer look at all the clues the author has thrown your way from the very beginning, from the very first sentence itself.
Next comes Death on Gokumon Island. A son of one of the most important families on Gokumon Island breathes his last beside Kindaichi. His last words are “…my sisters will be murdered…”, and he begs Kindaichi to help them. Despite Kindaichi’s attempts to honour his friend’s request, the sisters begin to die in absurd yet poetic ways. This book was inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which comes through quite clearly in the atmosphere. A mysterious island. A storm blocking off all access to the island until it is too late. Curious haikus popping up everywhere and the corpses seemingly obeying them. Twisting this way and that, the plot seems to make no sense until the very end when all those entwining threads are untangled by Kindaichi and the truth is revealed.
The Village of Eight Graves would probably be my least favourite of the four solely because there’s not enough Kindaichi in it. The narrator is Tatsuya Terada, and we see the entire misadventure unfurl through his eyes. Tatsuya discovers that he is the heir to a wealthy family in a small village. While this might seem like good news, nothing but tragedy follows Tatsuya. He receives a letter warning him against stepping foot in the village lest the carnage starts up again. Ignoring the warning, Tatsuya continues on to the village. And once he gets there, the situation darkens almost immediately. With suspicions mounting on him, Tatsuya scrambles to solve the several mysteries surrounding his birth, his family, and the village as a whole. Kindaichi is a mere side character in this tale. We see him drift in and out of a few chapters, arriving just to throw a few hints at Tatsuya and the reader. Of course, he is there towards the end to wrap up the whole mystery and shine the light on the true villain, but it’s hardly enough.
The fourth book The Inugami Curse is set in a huge estate in a small town (are we seeing a pattern here). When Sahei Inugami, the head of the Inugami family, dies, his convoluted and almost spiteful will sets in motion the events of the novel. Beginning with the poisoning of the lawyer who writes to Kindaichi asking for his assistance and expertise and ending in three horrific murders intertwined with the three heirlooms of the Inugami family—the ax, the koto, and the chrysanthemum.
And there we have a book with ‘a number in the title’, ‘a translated work’, ‘a re-read’, and one where the ‘title begins with d’. The diagonal is finally complete.
Not a bad ending to Book Bingo, over all.