"And when that came into my mind, I became unbelievably happy. The criminal gave us a locked room murder as a problem and challenged us! He challenged us with a battle of wits! Well, let's take this challenge then! Let us fight this battle of wits!"
"The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case"
"The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case"
When reading secondary literature and meta-fiction, you sometimes come across spoilers for detective novels. And while spoiling some plot-twists might be considered 'safe' in this time and age (is it possible to spoil... King Kong?), spoilers are usually marked and even an academic will usually first introduce the title of the work before going into the spoiler-danger portion of his story. So a reader has the choice of reading the spoiler, or not. With detective novels, a lot of the fun derives from the fact you have to deduce the facts yourself, so spoilers are usually avoided.
Unless, of course, you don't actually think you'll ever read the book anyway and thus don't really care about a solution being spoiled. So when I many, many moons ago read a detailed summary of Yokomizo Seishi's masterpiece Honjin Satsujin Jiken ("The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case"), with no prospects of a translation in a language I could read, I didn't really care about the spoiler. Who would've guessed I'd do another bachelor course after the first one, this time in Japanese studies, resulting in a new-and-improved me who is actually able to read the novel in Japanese?
Yokomizo Seishi was a detective writer with quite some similarities with Edogawa Rampo. In the pre-war (WWII) period, both writers started out as orthodox detective writers, only to change to un-orthodox detective stories, as these were the norm in pre-war Japan. Following the Second World War (during which the publication of detective novels was forbidden), both writers returned to the orthodox detective novel. Edogawa Rampo poured his energies in essays and criticism, while Yokomizo Seishi finally wrote the orthodox detective novels he always wanted to write.
He published two novels in 1946, of which the more famous one is Honjin Satsujin Jiken. The novel is commonly seen as the first Japanese orthodox (authentic) Golden Age-style detective novel. A symbol of the change between the pre-war un-orthodox novels and post-war orthodox novels. It plays a big role in influential critic/writer Kasai Kiyoshi's orthodox detective theory (on which I'll someday, someday will write something. But not now). It's also considered a very Japanese novel, a novel only a Japanese, living in a Japanese setting could have written.
But most importantly, for me, it's a great detective novel. Not even knowing the solution already could spoil this experience. I'm not going to say anything new in a historical context about this book, so I'll just rave about this novel.
daimyo to stay in while traveling (because of sankin koutai.) during the Edo period. But the Ichiyanagi family did run a honjin during the Edo period and while the family have moved away from their original location since then, the Ichiyanagi family is still a wealthy and influential family in 1937, nowadays living in a big mansion (complete with annex) in rural Okayama. While the class-structure has been abolished for many years now, the villagers are still looking up to the marriage of the eldest son of the Ichiyanagi family, Kenzou, as though they were peasants to their lord. But tragedy strikes! The night of the marriage a scream and the eerie sound of a koto being played is heard at the Ichiyanagi mansion and when members of the family go take a look at the annex where Kenzou and his new wife Katsuko are staying, they find the married couple dead, slayed by a sword. But how could have the murderer have escaped? The sliding doors of the annex were all fastened from the inside and what's more, there were no footprints in the snow around the annex! The only clues left are some bloody fingerprints of somebody with only three fingers... Genzou, the uncle of Katsuko sends out a telegram asking his wife to send his protogé Kindaichi Kousuke to him.
Yes, Honjin Satsujin Jiken is the first novel to feature famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke. As this novel is set before the war (all the other Kindaichi novels are actually set after the war), Kindaichi is here still a young, bright boy (though he has been to America by now, and was addicted to drugs for a while too), but his trademark long hair, his out-dated clothes and his stuttering are all there. And he is as bright as always. He solves the locked room murder through sheer logic and it's no wonder this book set off such a boom in orthodox detective novels (and Kindaichi fans!).
Yokomizo's also a genius in creating atmosphere. The creepy sound of a koto in the night, a ghost from the past (the man with three fingers), the small rural (Okayama) village setting, head and branch families, the upper/lower classes, the occasional use of dialects, elements that are unmistakenly deeply connected with the Kindaichi Kousuke novels were all introduced in this novel. The war, a theme that plays a big role in the background in many of the Kindaichi novels is not as visible, as it's set in before the war, but in return, the focus shifts a bit more to class differences, something also decidedly present in the Kindaichi novels (though not as 'visible' as the war).
Strangely enough though, this book seems to be parodied not as much as other Kindaichi classics like Gokumontou ("Prison Gate Island"), Inugamike no Ichizoku ("The Inugami Family") and (of course) Yatsu Haka Mura ("Eight Graves Village"). Even though it has its own set of memorable scenes like the koto, the dead cat body and the three fingered man!
The solution of the novel is a very memorable one, ingenious enough to be called a classic, though it is a bit hindered by its complexity. While not as improbable as The Chinese Orange Mystery, it's still a very complex one with many factors to consider, but the way the locked room is a) set and b) how it's made possible, makes this one of the Grand Titles in Japanese detective history, a must-read for anyone interested in how in the genre has developed in Japan. It's also much more satisfying than Edogawa Rampo's D-Zaka no Satsujin ("The Murder at D-Slope"), Japan's first locked 'room' murder mystery.
The novel feels very much as meta-fiction too. Yokomizo longed to write a detective novel during the war, having spent much time reading them and he makes many references to the authors who have inspired him. In the first chapter, for example, he mentions Leroux' Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, LeBlanc's Les dents du tigre, S.S. Van Dine's The Canary Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case, Carr's The Plague Court Murders and Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells, while halfway the novel, Kindaichi Kousuke and third son of the Ichiyanagi family, Saburou, talk about the workings of locked room murders and in the end, the author pats himself on the shoulder gloating about how his carefully chosen words were a hint on their own.
I don't read Kindaichi novels often, as they take some time (though this one was surprisingly easy, taking only three days), but actually own many of them and every time I do read them, I can only rave about how awesome they are. I really, really should read more.
But then again, I say that also about Edogawa Rampo, Norizuki Rintarou, Ayatsuji Yukito, Shimada Souji, Arisugawa Arisu, Nikaidou Reito, Maya Yutaka, American/English writers, secondary literature...
Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史、『本陣殺人事件』