Caroline: It’s over a hundred years now since the golden age of detective fiction began in Britain. Some writers who were key to the popularity of the whodunnit between the two world wars are still household names in the UK and the US today — Agatha Christie, of course, but the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and others have their dedicated fanbases too. And in the last decade, there has been a great revival of interest in crime fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, with authors whose work has not stayed in the limelight quite so well now being brought back to mainstream availability.
But a neglected part of my own reading, and I think that of many other fans of detective fiction from this time, is what was happening beyond the Anglophone world. While it is true that what we now refer to as the “golden age” style of detective novel did find many of its initial practitioners among British and American writers, they were not the only ones trying their hand at it. Japan also has a deep and intriguing tradition of twentieth century crime writing, and thanks to a recent spate of translations, those of us who aren’t able to read these stories in their original language can now enjoy whodunnits from a different culture and tradition.
Today, we’re going to delve into the honkaku mysteries.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we start this episode, a brief note on pronunciation. While I’ve made every effort to try and say the Japanese words and names in this episode as accurately as I can, I’m not a Japanese speaker and I’m sure I’m making mistakes. If you are interested in learning more about the language and translation side of this topic, I’ve linked to some interviews and resources in the show notes.
What is a honkaku mystery? That word is going to be very important in this episode, so let’s look closely at it for a moment. “Honkaku” can be translated as “orthodox”, and during the golden age period it became a term that writers used to describe a distinct style of crime story. The writer Haruta Yoshitame defined a honkaku story as “a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning.” A lot of the conventions that grew out of this initial definition are very similar to those expressed in the so called “rules” espoused by British and American golden age writers, with the idea of “fair play” and logical deduction key to both.
Under his Koga Saburo pseudonym, Yoshitame was one of the pioneers of this style in Japanese fiction, publishing short stories in the 1920s and contributing an essay on Arthur Conan Doyle to a collection published in Japan in 1934. However, the honour of writing the very first honkaku detective story in Japanese is usually given to Taro Hirai, who published “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” in 1923. Hirai wrote under the pen name Edogawa Rampo, which was a rough transliteration of the name “Edgar Allen Poe”, and his Tokyo based private detective Kogoro Akechi has a lot in common with Sherlock Holmes. Older writers like Ruikō Kuroiwa and Kaita Murayama had published works that married elements of detection with sensational and Gothic tropes before, but it was the stories that appeared in the 1920s that are really the first recognisable whodunnits.
As you can already see, there are a lot of links between the detective stories of the US and the UK and those being written in Japan. But as I read more about the work of Hirai and Yoshitame, it struck me that this influence runs in one direction only. The Japanese writers were reading Poe, Conan Doyle, Gaston Leroux and, when they came along, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne and others. The honkaku writers’ novels are peppered with references to the English language crime fiction of the time, as you’ll hear later in the episode. But there was no transmission in the opposite direction, as far as I’ve been able to determine. A lack of communication, a snobbishness about translating fiction, prejudice against Japanese people — for whatever reason, there was no way that Agatha Christie could read the honkaku writers’ work like they were devouring hers, even if she had wanted to.
The writer I really want to introduce to you came along slightly after Hirai and Yoshitame, and would go on to become the most popular honkaku writer of all. Born in 1902, Seishi Yokomizo would write 77 detective novels over the course of his long career, many of them with a locked room element. He created an iconic detective character who has appeared in numerous film and TV adaptations, and he had sold over 55 million books by the time of his death in 1981. Just to give you a small idea of how big a deal he is in Japan: there’s a Seishi Yokomizo museum in Tokyo and an annual parade in his home town where participants dress up as his detective.
A really challenging thing when exploring books that are now nearly a century old is that there’s very few people left who have first hand memories of the writer. So it’s a rare pleasure to be able to hear from someone who at least witnessed Yokomizo at work — a member of his own family, in fact.
On: He passed away when I was a 10. Absolutely. I remember a lot of times spend with her with him. But I always have a question what he was doing in his office all the way, the corner of the house.
Caroline: I’ll let my guest introduce himself.
On: My name is On Nomoto. I’m the grandson of Seishi Yokomizo who is the one of the two leading figures of Japanese golden age detective mystery fiction.
Caroline: On has lived in America for over twenty years now, but grew up in Japan and in normal times would be going back every year to visit family. His grandfather grew up in the early twentieth century in Kobe, a port city to the west of Tokyo.
On: That’s Kobe shogo. That’s one of the major trading hubs in the history of Japan and then he was supposed to succeed his father’s business or other medical How do you call about medical field? Small business, but of course he have a desire to be writer, so he suddenly quit that. And then he came to Tokyo because of his friends or mentor by that’s another one of two major leading figures of Japanese sort of golden age, a detective fiction author.
Caroline: It was because he grew up this port city, which saw a constant influx of people from elsewhere in the world, that his grandfather was able to get his first taste of western mystery writing, On says.
On: I believe strongly believe that there’s a lot of many trading items all over the world. And there are many, you know, foreigner left the magazine or books or paper bags to get something to drink. They sell sodas in the old bookstore. And then he has a great friends. To hopping around the town, use the bookstore after the school, and then they grabbed any kind of detective mystery magazine or journals. And then that’s how he actually getting into this field.
Caroline: But a big impediment to Seishi Yokomizo’s writing, and that of the other honkaku writers of this time, was Japan’s political regime and its conflicts abroad. From 1937 the country was at war with China, and it then officially entered WW2 in 1940. Literary censorship became the norm, albeit with writers often choosing not to write out of fear of the possible consequences rather than direct enforcement, although that did happen too — in 1939 Taro Hirai was ordered to delete every word from his already published work as Edogawa Rampo because it was deemed “injurious to public morals”. Seishi Yokomizo, like many others, refrained from publishing any mystery fiction during this time.
On: In the1930s already the Pacific war so called, generally called world war two, had started. And then government censorship against to the western style culture, of course, literature included was actually the subject to be banned. So he was completely refused or denied to write any type of his desire for detective mystery. So that was a really hard time for him.
Caroline: It wasn’t until after the war, therefore, that Yokomizo published his first detective novel. The Honjin Murders was originally serialised in a magazine in 1946, and marks the first appearance of the character that Yokomizo would go on to write into 76 other books: his detective Kosuke Kindaichi.
In a 1946 essay titled “Detective Fiction and the War”, Yokomizo wrote that the “Japanese find themselves in this atrocious predicament because they do not read enough detective fiction”. He argued that the logic required to solve the puzzle of a honkaku mystery was a quality his country should prize more highly, and in his subsequent novels he wrote a great deal about the pre and post Second World War changes to Japanese society.
That first novel is littered with references to other mystery writers, from Japan and beyond. This was entirely deliberate, On says — a way of his grandfather finding his place in the honkaku or golden age canon.
On: So as you might aware, there’s a lot of European authors name on, in the book, as well as the Japanese his colleagues. Listed on the book. So I think that’s kind of more of a promotion to that field. You know, he really wants not just, he wants to show how he knowledgeable, but that rather than that, he wants to read those books or all Japanese people to change their, you know, open their mind. Not just only the small islands mindset, but also opened the mind to the other country.
Caroline: Honkaku mysteries were part of Japan’s changing culture, a homegrown answer to a literary genre popular elsewhere in the world. And Seishi Yokomizo was absolutely at the forefront of this movement.
After the break: Why did it take so long for honkaku mysteries to appear in English?
Now, a brief intermission. As you might be able to tell, Shedunnit isn’t a quick or simple podcast to make — there’s a lot of research and production that goes into each episode, and that all takes time and resources. The reason I’ve been able to keep it going, and hopefully keep making it better, is because of the support of listeners like you who keep the show financially viable by becoming members of the Shedunnit Book Club. It costs £5 a month, or less if you take out an annual membership, and in return you get two bonus episodes a month, an ad free version of the main show, and access to the lovely community where we read and discuss a different detective novel every month. If you are in a position to contribute to the future of an independent creative project, then consider becoming a member now — find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
The Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo’s first novel, was first published in 1946. It is set, however, in 1937, and its unnamed Watson-style narrator seems to be writing from some unspecified point in the early 1940s. This chronological positioning allows Yokomizo to write about a segment of Japanese society that is on the cusp of seismic change, while at the same time perfecting a classic locked room scenario.
The “honjin” of the title is a kind of historic lodge, used by aristocratic and important travellers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The families that ran these establishments were themselves considered part of an elite, and it is within such a family that Yokomizo sets his mystery. The novel represents a clash between traditional and modern values, embodied in the couple who are getting married at the start of the book: the groom, Kenzo, is the heir to the honjin lineage, while Katsuko comes from a newly mobile family of agricultural workers, who have made their fortune in America and are climbing quickly up the social ladder. She herself is an educated woman who works as a teacher, and her unfamiliarity with some of the traditions that Kenzo’s family wants to include in their wedding day is one of the ways that Yokomizo shows the class differences between the couple.
When the newlyweds are discovered violently murdered in their beds on their wedding night, with seemingly no way that a murderer can have got in or out of their room, Katsuko’s uncle takes matters into his own hands. The local police are investigating, but he calls in Kosuke Kindaichi, a strange young man of his acquaintance, who is fast gathering a reputation as a private detective. Kindaichi is in his mid twenties and dresses sloppily in a shabby outmoded jacket, wooden clogs and socks with holes in. His hair is always tangled underneath his wide brimmed hat and he speaks with a stutter. He is, in short, the perfect golden age detective, with enough eccentricities to make him an outsider in every situation and the steely intellect to deliver the shocking denouements that readers desire.
The Honjin Murders is very engaged with the familiar tropes of golden age detective novels, even to the point where there is a whole shelf of them on display in the victim’s house. This story is, in a way, a country house murder mystery, albeit one that has none of the superficial cosiness that some stories in this subgenre exhibit. The area around the village of Okamura is bleak and cold, and there’s a claustrophobic quality to the landscape that bleeds into the story. The combination of this setting, the larger themes about class and transgression and the locked room trope are what makes Seishi Yokomizo’s first book so enduringly popular, On suggests.
On: Generation to generation I believe that we need to, you know, see back to what, how Japan used to be. And then his story is not just a, of course he is a devilish twist man . But his book, always have some little taste of the Japanese old culture, also in a history perspective, be employed. That I’m glad that the, some, you know, young generation you know, pick up those books and then, you know, yeah.
Caroline: The Honjin Murders won the inaugural Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948, and helped to establish Yokomizo as one of the leading proponents of the honkaku style. As he continued to write about Kotsuke Kindaichi’s adventures through the 1940s and 1950s, he returned often to themes of inheritance, tradition and modernisation, keeping pace with the way his own country was changing.
Given how influential and popular Seishi Yokomizo’s work was, it seems incredible that his novels didn’t appear in English until 2019. But that is indeed what happened — there were a couple of French translations in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until very recently that you could read any of his honkaku mysteries in English.
To dig a little further into why that might be, I spoke to Daniel Seton, commissioning editor at Pushkin Press, who was instrumental in getting The Honjin Murders translated. I asked him how he came to be interested in Japanese crime fiction:
Daniel: So we at Pushkin Press we started our crime and thrillers imprint Pushkin Vertigo in 2015. So it was a bit prior to that we started researching looking for the best classic and contemporary crime and thrillers from all over the world that we could publish in the UK and, you know, bring to readers of English. And very early in that process, which was very fun, I have to say, you know, as a fan of especially classic crime myself growing up and my whole life really liked Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle, it was so much fun to try and, you know, scour the globe to find out what other traditions of crime writing were like. And very early on what we discovered was that you know, the Japanese tradition of crime writing is so rich and so popular. It’s really a treasure trove of crime. And Seishi Yokomizo was one of the biggest, if not the biggest writers in that world of crime.
Caroline: There was just one problem, though — not being a Japanese speaker, Daniel couldn’t read Yokomizo’s work to see if he liked it.
Daniel: Even though it’s extremely highly regarded as a mystery, it never been translated into any languages. Whereas some of his other mysteries have been translated into French, for example, which we were able to read. So, but based on, you know, his reputation, what we could read, we just knew straight away that it just seemed like a massive oversight that he’d never been published in the UK before.
Caroline: Pushkin have now published two Yokomizo books in English, The Honjin Murders translated by Louise Heal Kawai and The Inugami Curse translated by Yumiko Yamakazi, with plans for more in the future. And the response seems to bear out Daniel’s initial hunch that non Japanese readers would love the honkaku style.
Daniel: Well, the response to all Seishi Yokomizo’s books has been really amazing so far and especially The Honjin Murders. It got rave reviews and has been our best selling title since we published it at the end of 2019. And that’s across our whole list, not even just the crime list. I wasn’t really surprised at all because I’m a huge mystery fan myself and I absolutely love it. It’s really fiendish, expertly, plotted mystery. It’s packed full of all the elements that thrill fans of golden age classics. [00:27:00]
Caroline: Pushkin have also expanded their reach into Japanese fiction beyond the 1940s and 1950s, and published in English work by contemporary writers like Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji. This is the fascinating thing about the honkaku style, and where it really differs from what happened in Britain and America. Apart from a short period in the 1970s and 1980s when Japanese readers seemed more interested in police procedurals and thrillers, the classic honkaku puzzle mystery has never really fallen out of favour.
Daniel: What the mysteries that we publish do especially well i s that they take the fair play puzzle mystery element that’s present in so many golden age mysteries and they just, and they just take that and run with it developing really interesting, creative, new ways. The perhaps in the West people have kind of given up on the elements of crime more or less and focus more on the the you know, the social commentary side or the character development side, which is just great, but I mean, I love a good old fashioned puzzle and I think our readers do as well.
Caroline: This new generation of writers describe call their style shin honkaku, or the “new orthodox”, and they’re very active in exploring all of its possible facets — whether that’s crossovers with the supernatural, newer forms like graphic novels and anime, or just stretching the locked room form as far as it can possible go. Soji Shimada, author of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, has described it as “not only literature but also, to a greater or lesser extent, a game,” and this playful energy seems to reinvigorate this now very old genre.
In an echo of the Detection Club, in the year 2000 a group called the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan was founded, and they publish annual anthologies and rankings of the best puzzle mysteries, as well as running a literary prize. Being described as a shin honkaku writer today is something Japanese crime writers aspire to — it’s a badge of honour. Unlike contemporary crime writing in English, which has moved a long way away from the influence of John Dickson Carr and Gaston Leroux, in Japan that style is still thriving, a century on.
It’s a good thing, then, that the honkaku mysteries from a century ago are finally starting to appear in English. There are still 75 Kosuke Kindaichi novels that I haven’t read yet. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thehonkakumysteries. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.