Mysteries from all over

The Honjin Murders (Japan)

Seishi Yokomizo’s Japanese mystery classic was first published in 1946, but was only translated into English (by Louise Heal Kawai) in 2019. So for non-Japanese speakers, this is a fairly recent novel. 99p on the Kindle, so I downloaded.

Kosuke Kindaichi is the investigating detective, in the first of his 77 outings. He’s a bit of a Holmes, I suppose, claiming to solve mysteries through the power of his intellect, though there’s also something of the Columbo about him. He presents as an eccentric, not caring about his appearance, wearing outlandish clothes and with unkempt hair. Victims of British political life over the past decade may need a trigger warning on that last aspect.

It’s a ‘locked room’ mystery, which references and pays homage several western writers and novels. There’s snow on the ground, so there’s an absence of footprints, but I wasn’t terribly interested in the ingenious solution to the double killing.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t enjoying the book. What I liked about reading it was the way it established a sense of place, and exposed me to a culture very different from my own. The significance of the publication date made me think of An Inspector Calls, and the way Priestley wanted his audience to think about social change. The case takes place in the pre-War, militaristic Japan, which is building up to the war against China which will merge into the Pacific War of 1941-5. But the narration is taking place after Japan’s defeat, and Yokomizo wants to write about the impact modernity on rural Japan, something crucial to the motive behind the crime.

Overall the effect is one of Golden Age meets Hardboiled, because there’s a darkness at the heart of this story.

The other interesting aspect for me was the narrative technique, with the fictive author’s voice quite clear at many points, and several examples of what Genette called metalepsis (the shifting of narrative levels), as different fragments of evidence were introduced. In this sense, The Honjin Murders feels like a modernist text as well as a murder mystery: a murder mystery about murder mysteries.

The Trespasser (Ireland)

This is the sixth (and last, so far at least) of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. As with the others, the narrator here is different from the previous book(s), but in this case, we have the same pair of detectives as we had in the fifth in the sequence, The Secret Place. Antoinette Conway is the only woman in the squad at the time of the setting, and the only black person. She is being harassed constantly and trusts none of her colleagues, except maybe Stephen Moran, her partner, who narrated The Secret Place.

The problem is, even Steve she can’t bring herself to trust fully.

A young receptionist turns up dead in her own living room – another locked room mystery, although as someone points out early on, if the front door is on a Yale lock, you only have to close it and it’s latched. The victim is kind of plastic beautiful, notes Conway, working really hard to look a certain way, and her house is a spotless simulacrum of twee perfection.

I’ve read other reviews claiming the book was so full of twists and turns that it’s never what you think it’s going to be, but here I have to demur. It was exactly what (and who) I thought it would be. Maybe I’ve read too much of this genre, but the perp and their connection to the case was obvious almost from the start. That said, you don’t really read Tana French for the mystery. You read for the claustrophobic atmosphere of the squad room, the paranoia, the tension, the uncertainty about who you can trust and who’s pissing in the narrator’s locker and spitting in her tea.

It becomes unbearable at times, with long interrogation scenes that make Line of Duty seem like the twaddle it really is. I did have to look up spoilers just to settle my nerves.

Both good reads, a cut above your big font thrillers with Girl in the title.

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