Sunday, January 5, 2020

Yokomizo Seishi : The Honjin Murders ( Honjin Satsujin Jiken (本陣殺人事件), 1946)



Yokomizo Seishi, the first great Japanese novelist, the one who with Edogawa Ranpo is considered the founder of the western Japanese detective novel, was born in 1902.
For many years his family cultivated the hope that he, graduating from the pharmacy, could carry on the family pharmacy, while instead he was more attracted to creative writing, and in particular to police writing.
Known Edogawa Ranpo, the greatest writer of the 1920s and 1930s, he was spurred on by this to write, but success did not come at the beginning. When it was thought that the first real success, Ningyo Sashichi torimonocho, had launched him, Japan entered the War and therefore his ambitions were arrested. Moreover, suffering from tuberculosis, he had to take refuge with his family in an inaccessible area, coming in poor conditions. With the end of the war, and the return home, Seishi returned to ascribe and found success in 1946, with the two novels Honjin Satsujin Jiken ( 殺人 事件) and Chōchō Satsujin Jinken ( 殺人 事件).
Followed by many readers and considered one of the greatest Japanese writers of all time, called the Japanese Carr for the many impossible and supernatural situations or bordering on horror, he reached the maximum of fame after twenty years, when he published the novels on Inugami family.
He died in 1981.
The story takes place at the end of November 1937.
A man shows up in Yamanodani village in Okayama and asks about the Ichiyanagi residence. Well taken, the news spreads, because that man, rather scruffy, has his right hand with only three fingers. The time to ask for information and a glass of water and immediately he starts again: he has a disturbing aspect, moreover because a wound starts from the mouth that runs all over the cheek, almost as if the mouth had been opened in two.
The strange visit goes hand in hand with the wedding party of Kenzo Ichiyanagi, the eldest son, with a girl of far more modest birthplace Katsuko, coming from a family that has grown rich over time, without however having the nobility of the Ichiyanagi.
The girl was not very well received, but Kenzo has imposed herself. Kenzo's mother who is the one who criticized the choice of the son the most, would like the girl play the Koto, the traditional Japanese instrument, which the bride plays during the wedding ceremony as is in the tradition of the Ichiyanagi. There is a moment of impasse, then Kenzo's little sister, Sukuko, takes the burden.
Meanwhile, died Sukuko's cat, who was buried on November 25, to avoid the belief that dead unburned cats turn into ghosts. Buried on the wedding day! There are persons who are horrified by this
In this strange atmosphere, in which a part of the family members are lined up against, especially the mother of Kenzo, Itoko and Ryosuke, a cousin, with his wife Akiko, and others are indifferent, such as Saburo and Sukuko, the two twins and Takaji, his medical brother, Kenzo is married to Katsuko. At the wedding the bride is represented by her paternal uncle, Ginzo. But on the night of the wedding you can hear it ringing, at a certain time you can hear screams coming from the house of the spouses, separated from the rest of the complex. And then the sound of the koto.
Ginzo gets dressed and with the help of Genshiki, a farmer, they go to the house, whose shutters are all closed, from the inside. Outside in the snow, a bloody sword is stuck in the snow, but there are no footprints around it.
The two beat in silence on the shutters, then with an ax they manage to enter and find Katsuko dead and above her collapsed Kenzo, also he, dead. No one else in the house.
In a house locked from the inside, including windows, except for a window, but too narrow for a man or even a child to pass through.
They call the police. Inspector Isokawa, in charge of the case, suspects everyone but does not know what to do. The fact that Takaji, the only one not to attend the wedding ceremony because he has just arrived on a mission, but there is something that makes Ginzo believe his testimony about the arrival time is false, causes him to send a telegram in which it’s solicited the presence, at the house of the Ichnayagi, of Kindaichi Kosuke, a young man whom he has adopted, and who has become a famous private investigator, despite the very young age and one, is grateful to him.
A series of footprints are found, imprinted in the snow on the side of the house opposite the one where the tragedy took place. As if the killer had entered, he had closed the door behind him, perhaps he had hidden in the closet where traces of blood were found until the moment when the two spouses had returned for the wedding night and then he had gone out to kill them. But ... where would he go if everything was closed from the inside?
Kindaichi will immediately have to put aside what is certain proof from what seems to him and from what is clearly false: the famous sound of koto, first of all attributed to koto but not from koto; a characteristic noise like that of a mill, heard roughly at the time of the death of the two spouses; Kenzo's diaries, from which torn pages are missing; a mysterious relentless enemy of Kenzo; the three-fingered man: the fact that fingerprints of three bloody fingers were found everywhere in the annex of the spouses, but no trace of the man was found; the lack of the koto bridge; a sickle, stuck in a trunk around the house; the presence in Saburo's chamber of a well-stocked library of enigma detective novels, with numerous examples of Locked Rooms, and the similarity of the case in question with that described in Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune; the presence of Sukuko, at night, near the cat's grave, which will be confirmed to have been actually buried, after a first reconnaissance, and that at a subsequent one by Kosuke, something else will also be found in the cat's "coffin", hidden after the first; footprints on the side of the house opposite the one that hosted the drama.
Kosuke and Ginzo will discover in a charcoal burner the clothes and shoes that someone tried to burn, and the man's corpse with three fingers, also killed by something extremely sharp, buried under the clay floor.
Then there will also be the wounding of Saburo, which took place with similar conditions.
In light of all these clues, and of the evidence found, Kindaichi Kosuke, will demonstrate the veracity of his accusatory hypothesis, while solving theLocked Room, and putting a family member in trouble.
The novel is a small masterpiece.
With a harmonious and fluid style, it fascinates not only for the wealth of true and misleading clues, but also for the absurdly bizarre atmosphere it invents: a scarred man with three fingers, and the bloody footprints of the three fingers present throughout the annex; a terrible, double killing on the wedding night; a completely barred house; a dead cat; a girl who suffers from sleepwalking.
The locked room is a kind of deadly trap, and the method of killing needs each of the indicated indications: the mill, the koto, the sickle, even bamboo canes, the presence of an open window. Obviously in a spectacular locked room like this, due to the extreme complexity of the action, two people are required to act for the realization of the plan: one is an accomplice, and does not participate in any way in the actual action, but it creates a misleading effect, using the place and some clues to create false tracks, which disturb the identification of the real murderer and at the same time his own disturbing action; the other is the killer.
In the novel there are references to some famous Locked Rooms (The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson and The mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux or also The Problem of Thor Bridge by Conan Doyle) because the novel is in a certain sense a tribute to that subgenre of western fiction, through the typical Japanese atmospheres and styles. And therefore it must also refer to something.
In my opinion, a certain point of contact is for example with Ellery Queen: the fact that the assassin's accomplice hides in the tangerine box, which has become the cat's coffin, a macabre package under the cat, makes me immediately think about The Greek Coffin Mystery, in which the absence of Khalkis' will after the funeral, causes the exhumation of the corpse and in the coffin they find another corpse, that of Grimshaw, a forger.
And there would be others, indirect, with other novels, even later:
the footprints left by the killer on the snow that start from the part of the house where the double crime took place, are not found because it snowed: but why are the others found, if it snowed the same way? Because there are trees and the canopies have protected the ground. Where instead they are left in the open, they end up being covered by snow. Now the assassin's plan was that it did not snow, that the footprints from the house were found and an open shutter was also found, so that the assassin was thought to have escaped. But the snow had made it impossible for the Persian claw to open and therefore the Locked Room had become a necessity. In this, that is, in an external event that changes the state of things by making it possible to create conditions for a Locked Room, we can see a reference to other novels, e.g. at the following La Mort vous invite by Paul Halter in which something happened at the window causes the conditions for a Locked Room occur. And the same sword stuck in the snow and how it ended there, reminds me the method used in William De Andrea's Killed on the Rocks.
However, beyond our references, or the points of contact, the importance of Honjin Satsujin Jiken is undisputed, especially within the Japanese police narrative of which Yokomizo Seishi's novel is a cornerstone.
In fact, if Yokomizo before the war wrote detective stories that drew on grotesque and horror and that somehow recovered the American tradition but in a strongly nationalist and Japanese perspective, after the war with the novel in question he left the narrative behind grotesque and founded the Japanese detective fiction that follows the great tradition of the American golden age, from Van Dine to Ellery Queen, to Carr.
The importance of Yokomizo's novel is in relation to the refoundation of the Japanese detective story.
In Satomi Saito 's thesis on Japanese Detective Fiction -CULTURE AND AUTHENTICITY: THE DISCURSIVE SPACE OF JAPANESE DETECTIVE FICTION AND THE FORMATION OF THE NATIONAL IMAGINARY , we read:
All of the postwar debates about authenticities in detective fiction eventually led to the postulation of Yokomizo Seishi’s Honjin satsujin jiken (1946) as the first authentic detective fiction written by a Japanese writer… In the devastation after World War II, however, Japanese writers returned to the general trend of the genre and produced puzzle stories of the Golden Age constituting what many critics call the first Golden Age of Japanese “authentic” detective fiction. Although the movement helped draw new talent to the genre, it soon reached a dead end and was substituted for the realistic crime novels of Matsumoto Seichō that were latercalled the “social school” (shakaiha) of detective fiction (pag. 167-168)… Yokomizo  first started his career, like Edogawa Ranpo, as a writer of modern “healthy” detective stories in his award winning “Osoroshiki shigatsu baka” (Dreadful April Fool, 1921) in Shinseinen. During his years as an editor of the publishing house Hakubunkan (1926-32),he introduced to Shinseinen what he called the “Shinseinen tastes”—multifaceted interests in things modern—as well as writing sophisticated stories of modern urban life such as “Kazarimado no naka no koibito” (His Lover in the Window, 1926), “Yamana Kōsaku no fushigina seikatsu” (The Strange Life of Yamana Kōsaku, 1927), and “Nekutai kidan” (A Strange Tale about A Necktie, 1927). When he became an independent writer in 1932, however, the bright urban style of his early writings was gradually overshadowed by the dark dreadful imagery full of grotesque tastes of kusazōshi pulp publication of the late Edo period. “Omokage zōshi” (The Story of Likeness, 1933) marks the transition with his effective use of the glamorous design of kusazōshi. The story recounts in the Osaka dialect the suspicion of the protagonist about the secret of his birth in the settings of a rich merchant family, which is also Yokomizo’s “return” to his own childhood memory of growing up in Kōbe as the son of a pharmacist. “Onibi” is perhaps Yokomizo’s most famous piece before the war. It is a story of the lifelong hatred between two men, which is reminiscent of Tanizaki’s “Kin to gin” (Gold and Silver). A murder and an exchange of identity are decorated by the “grotesque horror” of an eerie mask one of the two wears after a fatal train accident. In “Kura no naka,” the masochistic relationships between a boy and his blind sister in the secluded cellar even outshines its surprise ending as a detective story. As Edogawa Ranpo indicates, it is not difficult to see in those stories the strong influence of crime stories by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. After the war, however, Yokomizo went through an even more drastic transformation by enthusiastically writing so-called “authentic detective fiction” (honkaku tantei shōsetsu) and becoming the central figure in leading the authentic detective fiction movement. .Yokomizo’s conversion was even taken as a symbol of Japan’s postwar departure from an inward aestheticism conditioned by fascist ideology toward an outward
modernization suitable for postwar democracy.
The structure of the novel is interesting.  
There is first a Prologue in which the writer talks about the case in general and why he chose it as the subject of his novel, and the relationships between the novels of the Locked Room already read by him; then there is the investigation story divided into two parts: the first is the actual story, the second is Kindaichi's explanation; then finally there is the epilogue. It is interesting because in this too we see how the writer has before his eyes the most striking examples of the Mystery of the Golden Age. In fact, he presents the narrator as a neutral, impartial element, which narrates the story by adapting the account of Doctor F who participated as an observer in the story. A bit like Ellery Queen or Van Dine. And he wants to expose in facts exactly how they were examined so as not to fall into the basic assumption of the narrator directly involved in the case as Ranpo's "Injū", or even what the reader cheated as in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd .
It is no coincidence that various examples of locked rooms are mentioned in the novel, and even chap. 10 Tantei shōsetsu mondō "(The Dialogue about Detective Fiction)" Dialogue on investigative novels "is a clear reference to Carr's Locked Room Lecture in The Three Coffins.
Even in the course of the novel, Kindaichi says that he came to understand the execution of the murder after seeing a famous story by Conan Doyle on a shelf by Saburo (he quotes it but I don't, otherwise I make it clear how he could to happen).
In the Prologue, Yokomizo cites a whole series of writers known in Japan: "In the beginning, the narrator who the reader would be likely to associate with the author himself introduces the classic case of a" locked room mystery "he heard about during his stay in a country village. Referring to foreign locked room mysteries such as Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (1907) by Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), Les dents du tigre (1920) by Maurice Leblanc, The Canary Murder Case (1927) and The Kennel Murder Case ( 1931) by SS Van Dine (1888-1939), The Plague Court Murders (1934) by John Dickson Carr (1906-77), and Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Roger Scarlett, the narrator recounts that the "real" murder case is different from any of those "fictional" (and understandably "foreign") cases. "

"Roger Scarlett is a pen name of Evelyn Page (1902-1977) and Dorothy Blair (1903-1976?). This somehow forgotten piece in America is comparatively well-known in Japan thanks to Edogawa Ranpo's famous top ten lists in Gen'eijo. Ranpo even adopted it later as Sankakukan no kyōfu (The Horror of the Triangle Mansion, 1951)".
And he concludes that just such an abundance of Locked Room texts in a house in which a locked room crime had occurred convinced him that perhaps it was a sophisticated plan designed by a diabolical mind whose canvas had been inspired by those novels.
In short, as you can see, a main novel of the first detective fiction of Japanese fiction.

Pietro De Palma

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Is this a review of the Italian translation? I'd be interested to read it. It looks as if some of the structure of the book and a couple of names have been changed. Have you read the English translation also, recently released by Pushkin Vertigo under the title "The Honjin Murders"?

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    1. NO.BUT THE ITALIAN TRANSLATION WAS MADE FROM JAPANESE, NOT FROM OTHER LANGUAGE. USUALLY CHANGED NAMES AND SITUATIONS HAPPEN WHEN TRANSLATION IS MADE FROM TRANSLATION OF OTHER LANGUAGES AND NOT DIRECTLY FROM LANGUAGE MOTHER

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    2. But the English translation released by Pushkin was also done directly from the Japanese.

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    3. Indeed, Anthony. Thank you for your comment. Ecco il colpevole, This is clearly not a review of the English translation, because some of the names have been changed (the second son, for example, is Ryuji, but here he is Takaji. And there are several more changes.). I would really like you to clarify in this review which book is being reviewed. As the English translator of 「本陣殺人事件」I'd rather not have a review out there that seems to be of my translation but actually isn't. = Louise Heal Kawai

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    4. Ah, you are THE Louise! Thank you for your wonderful work wrangling these neglected classics through the language barrier. I look forward to seeing more from you!

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  3. SOON IN ITALY, THE SAME PUBLISHING HOUSE WILL PUBLISH ANOTHER YOKOMIZO NOVEL

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