Seishi Yokomizo, one of Japan’s most famous and loved mystery writers gave a new dimension to contemporary Japanese literature by writing 77 honkaku novels, building the Japanese concept of murder mysteries inspired by the golden age of detective fiction. Honkaku, which roughly translates to “orthodox” in English, typically depicts classic locked-room murders where the crime scene is a bedroom with the doors and windows sealed shut from inside, and no way of knowing who committed the murder and how.

Yokomizo’s first book in the sequence, The Honjin Murders, was originally serialised for the Houseki magazine from April to December 1946, before it was published as a novel in 1947. It is also his first book to be published in English translation by Pushkin Vertigo, the crime imprint of Pushkin Press, in the winter of 2019.

Getting Honkaku into English

“When we launched our Pushkin Vertigo imprint back in 2015, its mission was to bring the world’s best crime and thrillers to readers of English,” said Daniel Seton, Commissioning Editor at Pushkin Press. “Japan has such a long and rich tradition of crime writing that when we were looking to build our list it was an obvious place to begin our search.”

Seton said a colleague and he greatly enjoyed exploring Japanese classics and getting to understand the honkaku and shin honkaku traditions. “Even though nobody at Pushkin could read in Japanese, we were lucky that there were existing English and French translations of a number of key titles, and even more luckily for us many of these fantastic classic mysteries had either never been translated into English or were out of print,” he said.

Translated from the Japanese into English by Louise Heal Kawai, The Honjin Murders involves the murder of the eldest son of the renowned Ichiyanagi household and his bride on their wedding night, in their very own nuptial bedroom, with a katana sword. There’s no way a killer could either enter or leave the room, so the case becomes all the more baffling.

Kawai has previously translated two other books for Pushkin Press – Murder in the Crooked House by Shoji Shimada (another Honkaku mystery), and Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami. For a book published more than seven decades ago, she had to do a bit of research and devote some time to find the tone and voice of the narrator and its characters.

“The difference with a book written in 1946 as opposed to 2014 is researching the historical cultural references,” said Kawai. “The language has changed surprisingly little in the past 75 years, but there were definitely more phrases and words I needed to look up. The cultural references for understanding the architecture of the featured buildings was a particular challenge, for which I visited museums.”

Fall and rise

While the honkaku mystery novels have made a breakthrough in the English speaking world only recently, their popularity in Japan has waned significantly. “The books are only just being translated now so it’s new to everyone outside of Japan,” said Kawai. “Japanese literature is popular in the world right now and people are loving the honkaku style crime novels along with everything else. The movies based on Yokomizo’s books, however, tend to be shown regularly on television. Everyone knows the name of Kosuke Kindaichi. He’s as famous as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot here.”

The Honjin Murders introduces us to its detective-hero, Kosuke Kindaichi, a young man in his mid-twenties who is a far cry from the characteristic detective heroes and heroines of world literature. His unkempt appearance – with a wrinkled haori jacket bursting with journals, a kimono, and traditional hakama trousers – is in sharp contrast to the immaculate Hercule Poirot and the suave Sherlock Holmes. His hair resembles a bird’s nest, which he often scratches rather obsessively every time he is close to solving one of the pieces of the puzzling murders. He has a light stammer too.

Kindaichi is an affable investigator who works alongside the police and, of course, is usually ahead of them in resolving the crimes. He is observant and sharp, and relies on his intelligence rather than on tools to unravel the murders.

He also makes a significant appearance in the second Yokomizo honkaku mystery, The Inugami Curse, (originally published in May 1951 in Japanese), which was released in English when the pandemic was at its peak in June 2020. But the reception of the book was everything the publishers had hoped for.

“Seishi Yokomizo’s golden age mysteries seem to have struck a chord with lovers of classic crime in the UK and across the world,” said Seton. “I’m also pleased to say that even the pandemic couldn’t stop The Inugami Curse being one of the most successful titles we have ever published on our Pushkin Vertigo list.”

The Inugami Curse, translated by Yumiko Yamazaki, is a little more complex in terms of the storyline. There is family drama, only three-fold of The Honjin Murders. There are also more number of murders in it, grotesque and puzzling, as rightly they should be: the Silk King of Japan, Sahei Inugami, dies of old age, leaving behind a convoluted family tree comprising three illegitimate daughters from three different mistresses, their children, another son from a woman he loved, and a beautiful adopted granddaughter, all of them waiting to lay claim on his extravagant legacy. And so follows a series of attacks, allegations and cold-blooded, severed-head murders that leave the reader guessing till the very end.

Modern crime

While the plots of both the books are deliberately complicated with difficult family ties, revenge and greed in tow, the structure of these honkaku mysteries seem a bit dated in the current times. At times, the narrative tries too hard and leaves no room for imagination. In both the novels, the author attempts to shift the reader’s focus towards a suspicious character who might be involved in the killings: in The Honjin Murders, the three-fingered man with his sinister mask, and all in all a “shady looking character” and is made out to seem like the murderer; in The Inugami Curse, the masked-imposter of Kino is made to look like the killer.

But that’s the way Yokomizo wrote them and even with predictable twists and retro dialogues, the books are in fact an ode to an era of Japanese literature that existed a long time ago. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we see these books adapted into OTTs or feature films.

For now, readers are waiting for two more Kosuke Kindaichi mysteries that are scheduled to come out later in 2021 – The Village of Eight Graves and Gokumon Island (translated by Louse Heal Kawai), and, before that, a brand new edition of Masako Togawa’s The Master Key – a brilliantly original, twisty classic mystery set in a Tokyo boarding house for single women, is set to be published in the autumn of 2021 by Pushkin Vertigo.