Crime Excerpt: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (Japan)

Translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai 

Chapter 1 – The Three-Fingered Man

Before recording the strange history that follows, I felt I ought to take a look at the house where such a gruesome murder was committed. Accordingly, one afternoon in early spring, I set off, walking stick in hand, for a stroll around that infamous residence. 

I was evacuated to this rural farming village in Okayama Prefecture in May of last year, at the height of the bombing raids. And since that day, everyone I’ve met has talked to me at least once of what some call “the Koto Murder Case” and others “the Honjin Murder Case” at the home of the Ichiyanagi family. 

Generally, as soon as people hear that I’m a writer of detective stories, they feel compelled to tell me of any murder case with which they have the slightest personal connection. I suppose rumours of my profession had reached the ears of the villagers, so every single one managed to bring up the topic of the Honjin Murder Case at some point. For the people of this village there could hardly be a more memorable case, and yet most of them were not aware of the full horror of this crime. Usually when people tell me these kinds of tales, they never turn out to be as interesting to me as they are to the teller, much less potential material for a book. But this case was different. From the moment I heard the first whispers about the case, I was fascinated. Then, when I finally got to hear the account from the lips of F—, the man most directly connected to the case, I was at once seized with a great excitement. This was no ordinary murder. The perpetrator had scrupulously planned the whole ghastly deed. What’s more, it was worthy of the label “Locked Room Murder Mystery”. 

The locked room murder mystery—a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point in his or her career. The murder takes place in a room with no apparent way for the killer to enter or exit. Constructing a solution is an appealing challenge to the author. As my esteemed friend Eizo Inoue wrote, all of the works of the great John Dickson Carr are some variation on the locked room murder theme. As a writer of detective novels myself, I intended one day to try my hand at one of these, and now I’ve been unexpectedly blessed—one has fallen right into my lap. I know it’s shocking but I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the killer for devising such a fiendish method to stab this man and woman. 

When I first heard the story, I immediately racked my brain to think of any similar cases among all the novels I’ve read. The first that came to mind were Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Maurice Leblanc’s The Teeth of the Tiger; then there’s The Canary Murder Case and The Kennel Murder Case, both by S.S. Van Dine; and finally, Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders. I even considered that variation on the locked room murder theme of Roger Scarlett’s Murder Among the Angells. But this real-life case wasn’t quite like any of the above-mentioned. Maybe, just maybe, the killer had read a selection of stories like these, dissected all of the different devices used, then picked out the elements that he needed, constructing his own device… At least that’s one theory. Out of all of those books, it’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room that bears the closest resemblance, at least as regards setting and atmosphere; less so, the facts of the case. In that story, the crime scene was a room with yellow wallpaper; in the Honjin Murder Case, the columns and beams, ceiling and rain shutters were all painted in red ochre. Red ochre wasn’t an unusual hue for houses in this region—in fact, the house I was living in had also been painted that colour. The difference was that my house was extremely old, and the red lustre had faded to a dark brownish sheen. On the other hand, the room where the murder took place had just been repainted, and must have been gleaming with its fresh coat of red. The tatami mat flooring and the fusuma sliding doors that divided the two main rooms were brand new too, and there was a byobu folding screen decorated with gold leaf. The only unpleasant sight must have been the couple lying there, soaked in the crimson of their own blood.

To me, the most captivating element of this case was the way in which the traditional Japanese string instrument known as the koto was connected from beginning to end. At all the critical moments, its eerie music could be heard. I, who have never quite escaped the influences of romanticism, still find that incredibly alluring. A locked room murder, a red ochre- painted room and the sound of the koto… all of these elements are so perfect—too perfect—like drugs that work a little too well. If I don’t hurry to get it all down in writing, I fear their effects may start to wear off. 

[…]

Right across the street […] was a tavern with an earthen floor and a simple window in the front. It was a place where wagon drivers and other tradesmen would stop by for a quick drink and something to eat. But more significantly, the character who would go on to play a central role in what I’m calling the Honjin Murder Case made his first appearance at this very tavern. This was the first sighting of the three-fingered man… The incident took place around sunset on 23rd November 1937, or the twelfth year of the reign of the Showa Emperor. In other words, two days before the murder.

The okamisan, proprietress of this tavern, was sitting on one of the wooden stools out front, gossiping with a couple of her regulars—a wagon driver and an official from the local government office—as the figure of a man came hobbling down the road from the direction of K— town. When he reached the tavern, the man came to an abrupt halt. 

“Could you tell me the way to the Ichiyanagi residence?” 

The okamisan, the village official and the wagon driver stopped talking to look the man over. This wasn’t the kind of person one would expect to visit the Ichiyanagi family. He wore a crumpled felt hat pulled low over his eyes and a large mask covered his nose and mouth. Matted hair poked out from under his hat, and there was stubble covering his face from cheek to jowl. All in all, he was a shady-looking character. He wasn’t wearing a coat; the collar of his jacket was turned up against the cold, but that jacket and his trousers were smeared with grime and dust and worn away to a shine at the elbows and knees. His shoes were caked in grey dust and both soles were hanging off. Everything about the man looked run-down. It was hard to tell, but he was perhaps around thirty years old. 

“The Ichiyanagi residence? It’s that way. But what business do you have with the Ichiyanagi family?” 

The village official glared at the man, who blinked repeatedly while mumbling something unintelligible behind his mask. Just at that moment, on the same road from the very same direction that the man had come, a rickshaw appeared. The okamisan glanced at it, and turned back to the visitor. 

“Hey, you! Look. Here’s the very man you want to see, the master of the Ichiyanagi house.” 

The passenger in the rickshaw was a man of forty or so with a dark complexion and a severe expression on his face. He wore dark Western-style clothing, and sat stiffly upright in his seat. He never once glanced to the side, or took in his surroundings, but kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. With his sharp cheekbones and prominent nose, there was something austere and unapproachable about him. 

This was Kenzo, the current master of the house of Ichiyanagi. The rickshaw passed by in front of the group of onlookers and quickly disappeared around a bend in the road. The wagon driver waited until it was completely out of sight before turning to the okamisan. 

“Rumour has it the master of the house has found himself a bride. Is that right?” 

“Looks like it. The wedding’s the day after tomorrow.” 

“Eh? Already? Now that’s what I call quick.” 

“Well, if he wastes any more time, then someone might come up with new objections to the marriage. Now that it’s been decided he’s in a rush to get it done. He’s quite a force of nature, that one, when he puts his mind to something.” 

“Well, I s’pose that’ll be how he got to be such a big-shot scholar,” said the village official. “Mind you, he did well to get the consent of the old matriarch.” “Well, of course she doesn’t approve. But I heard she had to give in eventually. The more she opposed it, the more stubborn the young master became.” 

“How old is he now? About forty?” asked the wagon driver. 

“Forty on the nose,” replied the official. “And this is his first marriage.” 

“A middle-aged man in love. More passionate than a youngster, that’s for sure.” 

“And the bride’s only twenty-five or -six too,” said the okamisan. “Rin-san’s daughter, I heard. Landed herself a big fish. Now that’s what I call marrying up!” 

The official turned back to the okamisan. “Is she a stunner, then, the bride?” 

“They say she’s not all that good-looking. But she’s a teacher at some girls’ school, so she’s and clever and capable—I guess that makes her a good match for the master.” 

The okamisan sighed. “Looks like all the young girls’ll need an education from now on…” 

“Okamisan, don’t tell me you’re planning to go to school to land yourself a rich husband?” 

“Oh, you can bet I am.” 

The three of them burst out laughing. It was at that moment the strange visitor opened his mouth again. 

“Okamisan,” he said hesitantly, “could I possibly have a drink of water? My throat is so dry…” 

Startled, the three friends turned. Truth be told, they’d completely forgotten that he was there. The okamisan scowled at him for a few moments, but eventually filled a glass with water and handed it to him. The man thanked her, and shifted his mask so as to be able to drink. The three villagers exchanged a look.

There was a long gash on the man’s right cheek that appeared to have been stitched up after an injury. It was a deep scar that ran from the right corner of his lip up his cheek, as if the side of his face had been slashed open. The reason the man was wearing a mask wasn’t to protect him from dust or disease; it was to hide that scar. And there was one more gruesome detail that caught their eye. As he reached for the glass, they saw that he only had three fingers on his right hand. The ring finger and little finger were both cut in half; only the thumb and first two fingers were whole. The three-fingered man finished his water, thanked the okamisan and hobbled off in the same direction the rickshaw had gone. The three locals were left staring after him. 

“What the hell?…” 

“What does he want with the Ichiyanagis?” 

“Ugh, he gave me the creeps! Did you see that mouth? I’m never using that glass again!” 

The okamisan placed the used glass on the very far end of the shelf, a decision which would prove to be helpful in the following days. 

Incidentally, if you are the kind of reader who enjoys reading between the lines of a story, and recall the particulars of the crime, you may already be able to guess what I am about to write next. Namely, that you only need three fingers to play the koto. Its strings are traditionally plucked by the thumb, index and middle fingers. 

SEISHI YOKOMIZO (1902–81) was one of Japan’s most famous and best loved mystery writers. He was born in Kobe and spent his childhood reading detective stories, before beginning to write stories of his own, the first of which was published in 1921. He went on to become an extremely prolific and popular author, best known for his Kosuke Kindaichi series, which ran to 77 books, many of which were adapted for stage and television in Japan. The Honjin Murders is the first Kosuke Kindaichi story, and regarded as one of Japan’s great mystery novels. It won the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948 but has never been translated into English, until now.

LOUISE HEAL KAWAI is a translator of novels and short stories by a variety of Japanese authors. In 2018 she translated Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich, and Hideo Yokoyama’s Seventeen which was longlisted for the 2019 Best Translated Book award. Her other crime fiction translations include A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto and Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada. Louise comes originally from Manchester, UK, and now resides in Yokohama, Japan.

The Honjin Murders
Seishi Yokomizo
Translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
2019, Pushkin Press

(Excerpt published with the permission of Pushkin Press.)

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