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The Honjin Murders

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Wikipedia article

is a mystery novel by Seishi Yokomizo. It was serialized in the magazine 'Houseki' from April to December 1946, and won the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948. It was filmed as 'Death at an Old Mansion' in 1976. In 2019, it was translated into English for the first time by Louise Heal Kawai, and the translation was named by 'The Guardian' as one of the best recent crime novels in 2019.

The novel introduces Kosuke Kindaichi, a popular fictional detective who featured in seventy-seven Yokomizo mysteries. In it, he solves a locked-room mystery murder that takes place in an isolated mansion ('honjin') blanketed in snow. Yokomizo had read classic Western detective novels extensively, and the novel makes allusions to John Dickson Carr, Gaston Leroux, and others, with several mentions of Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room as an emblematic locked-room mystery. Though writing a noir and sometimes graphic murder mystery, Yokomizo worked within the tradition of literary Japanese aesthetics. He frequently paused to include lyrical descriptions of nature, the mansion, and the characters. The novel provides a detailed sense of place, including repeated references to cardinal directions and a detailed sketch of the murder scene. Koto music, instruments, and implements play a recurring role in the case.

In addition to the central mystery, Yokomizo uses the story to illuminate the traditions, customs, and agrarian rhythm of rural Japan in the early twentieth century as well as anxieties about changing class distinctions. The omniscient narrator, in an aside to the "Gentle reader," explains that the word "lineage, which has all but fallen out of usage in the city, is even today alive and well in rural villages like this one," and the killer's motive is revealed to relate to an obsession with traditional concepts of honor and family bloodlines.


On 25 November 1937, at a former honjin in Okayama, the wedding of Kenzou Ichiyanagi and Katsuko Kubo is held. The celebrants include the mother Itoko, the third son Saburo, the second daughter Suzuko, the cousin Ryousuke, and Ginzo Kubo, Katsuko's uncle. During the ceremony, Suzuko plays the koto, and everything ends without incident.

Later that night, the wild sound of the koto is heard across the mansion. Ginzo rushes to the newly wedded couple's bedroom, only to find the couple killed in a brutal fashion. A Japanese sword is later found thrust into the ground in the middle of the garden, with no footprints on the surrounding thick snow, creating a perfect locked room mystery.

Main characters

Key figures

;An omniscient narrator

:Writer of detective stories

;Kosuke Kindaichi

:A private detective, summoned by Ginzo Kubo

;Detective Inspector Tsunejiro Isokawa

:An inspector from Okayama prefecture in charge of the case

The Ichiyanagi Family

;Ihei Ichiyanagi

:Great-uncle of Kenzo, Ryosuke etc.

;Itoko Ichiyanagi

:Mother of Kenzo, Taeko, Ryuuji, Saburo, Suzoko, widowed

;Kenzo Ichiyanagi

:The eldest son, the present head of family, and an independent scholar of philosophy, engaged to Katsuko Kubo

;Taeko Ichiyanagi

:The eldest daughter, married and living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai

;Ryuuji Ichiyanagi

:The second son, a doctor employed at an Osaka hospital

;Saburo Ichiyanagi

:The ne'er-do-well third son, an avid reader and collector of detective novels

;Suzuko Ichiyanagi

:The second daughter, a seventeen-year-old but with the mind of a child but a skilled koto player

;Ryosuke Ichiyanagi

:An Ichiyanagi first-cousin, the head of a branch of the family who shoulders much of the day-to-day management of the estate

;Akiko Ichiyanagi

:Ryosuke's wife

;Sakue Ichiyanagi

:Husband of Itoko, father of Kenzo, Taeko, Ryuuji, Saburo, Suzoko, deceased

;Hayato Ichiyanagi

:Uncle of Kenzo, Taeko, Ryuuji, Saburo, Suzoko, father of Ryosuke, deceased

The Kubo Family

;Rinkichi Kubo

:Father of Katsuko

;Ginzo Kubo

:Katsuko's phlegmatic uncle and guardian, prosperous and yet a tenant farmer and therefore lower class

;Katsuko Kubo

:A schoolteacher, fiancee of Kenzo Ichiyanagi

;Shizuko Shiraki

:Friend of Katsuko Kubo


Category:1946 novels

Category:20th-century Japanese novels

Category:Novels first published in serial form

Category:Works originally published in Japanese magazines

Category:Locked-room mysteries

Category:Fiction set in 1937

Category:Novels set in Okayama Prefecture

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