Honkaku: a century of the Japanese whodunnits keeping readers guessing

After a day of joyous wedding celebrations, a bloodcurdling scream echoes into the night. The newlywed bride and groom are found dead in their bed, stabbed with a katana sword, now thrust into the snow outside. Their bedroom was locked from the inside, and there is no way the murderer could have broken in to do the deed, let alone escaped without leaving a trace. How was this impossible crime committed?

This is the chilling opener of The Honjin Murders, a masterful detective novel by Japanese writer Seishi Yokomizo. First published in 1946, it was the first of his books to be translated to English, en 2019 (two more have followed since). It is also a perfect example of a honkaku mystery: a fascinating form of crime writing that first emerged in Japón in the 1920s and, thanks to a recent raft of translations and republications, is now enjoyed by English readers more than ever.

Honkaku translates as “orthodox”, and refers to the crafting of fiendishly clever and complex puzzle scenarios – such as a murder in a locked bedroom – that can only be solved through logical deduction. Writer Haruta Yoshitame, who is credited with defining honkaku, described it as “a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning”.

Honkaku stories have more in common with a game of chess than some modern thrillers, which can be filled with surprise twists and sudden reveals. In honkaku, everything is transparent: no villains suddenly appear in the last chapter, no key clues are withheld until the final page. Honkaku writers were scrupulous about “playing fair”, so clues and suspects were woven through the plot, giving the reader a fair chance of solving the mystery before the detective does.

The very first honkaku story is usually 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 self-contained, a smoker of exotic Egyptian cigarettes, an expert at judo. Akechi even has his own version of Holmes’s urchin detective force, 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 nom de plume Kōga Saburō, he used details from his day job as an engineer to create highly technical plots with a strong scientific slant. (His 1930 story The Spider is an excellent example, and has recently been republished as part of the British Library’s Foreign Bodies anthology.)

But Yokomizo was the one to create a pop culture icon: The Honjin Murders marks the debut of his famous detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who appeared in another 76 books, as well as numerous film adaptations, manga and anime. Kindaichi is in his mid-twenties and dresses sloppily in a shabby jacket, wooden clogs and worn socks. His hair is always tangled underneath his wide brimmed hat and he speaks with a stutter. He is the perfect embodiment of honkaku: a distinctly Japanese outlook combined with the steely intellect of the golden age detective. By the time of his death in 1981, Yokomizo had sold more than 55m books; there is a museum dedicated to him in Tokyo.

The earliest honkaku writers were by no means working in a vacuum. Popular western mystery writers working in the 19th and early 20th century, such as Conan Doyle, Poe and Gaston Leroux, were great inspirations. Conan Doyles’s Holmes stories were first translated and serialised in Japan in the 1890s, and quickly found a passionate fanbase. The “ratiocination”, or rational deduction, of C Auguste Dupin in Poe’s 1841 story The Murders in the Rue Morgue was also very influential. (Seen in Hirai’s pen name, Edogawa Rampo.) And the “golden age” of detective fiction was under way in Britain, with writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh responding to the postwar demand for comforting, absorbing reads with a flood of whodunnits set in English country houses, luxury trains, theatres and boats. They also created memorable detectives that 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, también. When I spoke with Yokomizo’s grandson, On Nomoto, por a recent episode of my podcast about classic murder mysteries, he told me that his grandfather picked up popular European whodunnits from secondhand shops in his home city of Kobe, where western sailors would trade books for alcohol. The Honjin Murders is packed with references to crime writers, both Japanese and European; Nomoto said that this was a deliberate attempt by his grandfather to cultivate an international pedigree for the honkaku mystery. “He really wants to show not just that he’s knowledgable, but that he wants Japanese people to open their minds. Not only the small-island mindset, but also to open their minds to other countries,” he told me.

American author John Dickson Carr was particularly impactful on honkaku. Almost all of his many novels feature a detective unravelling an “impossible crime” or locked-room mystery: a plot where the crime initially seems physically impossible. The bloody wedding night in The Honjin Murders is a good example: there is seemingly no way that a murderer could have entered the room to stab the newlyweds, yet they are dead. Such intricately plotted puzzles became central to honkaku writers, who included impossible crimes more often than their British counterparts. Christie only wrote a handful – Poirot’s Christmas and Murder in Mesopotamia being the better-known examples – while almost all Yokomizo books include them.

But what makes honkaku so distinctly Japanese are the cultures, traditions and politics on display in the plots. The Honjin Murders, publicado en 1946 but set in 1937, is also brilliant on class anxiety in prewar Japan. The murdered bride and groom are from very different backgrounds: Kenzo is the head of an aristocratic family obsessed with protecting its dignity and lineage, while his new wife Katsuko is from a poor background and works as a teacher. Another Yokomizo novel, The Inugami Curse, has a classic golden age scenario at its heart – a wealthy man leaves a complicated will that results in his heirs dropping like flies as a murderer tries to maximise their inheritance – but also contains rich detail about Japan’s aristocracy, which was dissolving as society modernised.

And Yokomizo’s 1947 novela, Gokumon Island (to be published in English in March 2022), features a murderer killing according to a pattern – a familiar trope from European golden age detective fiction. SS Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case uses nursery rhymes, Christie’s The ABC Murders goes alphabetically – and Yokomizo confines all of his characters to a small Japanese island, and fashions each murder scene after a line from a famous haiku. One victim is hung upside down from a tree, another placed inside a large bell, and another dressed in the costume of a priestess. Japan’s restrictive wartime draft rules and the mental health problems experienced by demobilised soldiers also form an important backdrop to the plot.

War loomed large over honkaku. The conflict between Japan and China, then Japan’s entry into the second world war in 1940, completely disrupted the genre, which came to be viewed as too western and decadent by the authorities. En 1939, Hirai was ordered to remove his published work as Edogawa Rampo from sale because it was deemed “injurious 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 soon recovered. En 1947, Hirai, Yoshitame and others founded the Mystery Writers of Japan, a literary society to share stories and promote the form. (As Edogawa Rampo, Hirai was inaugurated as its first chair.) Soon the group was publishing a regular annual ranking of the best honkaku stories and rewarding the best with prizes. A version of this society still exists today.

Although the popularity of honkaku dipped in the 1960s and 70s as contemporary police procedurals entered the scene, the style rebounded as cheaper paperbacks made the classics more accessible. A new generation of crime writers began to play with the form and created a whole new genre: shin honkaku, or “new orthodox”. While many of the elements of honkaku remain, shin honkaku has a slightly looser attitude to genre boundaries: writers regularly incorporate supernatural elements, and more comedy, sometimes veering on slapstick. There’s even an entire subgenre of shin honkaku stories where victims come back to life and investigate their own murders. While in the UK and the US, where grittier thrillers rule the charts over classic whodunnits, shin honkaku writers are among the most popular working in Japan today.

Soji Shimada’s 1981 novel The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one great example, combining two narratives in 1936 y 1979. And Yukito Ayatsuji’s Bizarre House series, which began in 1987 and concluded in 2012, is another: the first book, The Decagon House Murders, is a thrilling homage to Christie’s And Then There Were None, following a group of amateur sleuths on a trip to a lonely island, the site of several unsolved murders. In the opening chapter, one character remarks: “Enough gritty realism please! What mystery novels need are a great detective, a mansion, a shady cast of residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes and never-before-seen-tricks played by the murder.” It’s impossible not to agree.

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