Book Review: 『本陣殺人事件』by Seishi Yokomizo

本陣殺人事件 (ほんじんさつじんじけん)
Title: 本陣殺人事件 (ほんじんさつじんじけん)
First published: 1946
Published: 2012
Format: Digital
Page Count: 204
Translation: The Honjin Murders, by Louise Heal Kawai
First published in 1946, this short novel won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948. It is the first novel in the Kosuke Kindaichi series, but strangely, it appears in the second volume of the Kindaichi series (金田一耕助ファイル2) as published by Kadokawa. The book also contains two other short stories/novellas that I haven’t read yet. There have been two film adaptations, one in 1947 and one in 1975, as well as several drama adaptations.…

I am reading this novel after spending a year reading the Kogoro Akechi series by Edogawa Rampo, and some points felt very similar, which made me appreciate the novel immediately. First of all, Kosuke Kindaichi reminded me a lot of the young Kogoro Akechi from the first short stories (his hair and his crumpled clothes are certainly a nod to Akechi). I really loved the first Akechi, but liked less the gentleman he turned into in the late novels, so I became an immediate fan of Kindaichi. I also find that the narration felt somehow similar: the narrator often addresses the reader to make sure we remember certain things, which is something used both by Edogawa Rampo and Seishi Yokomizo.

The case that our narrator tells us about is a locked-room mystery, and it contains all the elements of a classic of the genre: a room completely locked with two dead bodies in it, a limited set of characters, a mysterious stranger and even a heavy snow to deepen the mystery of the footprints…

The solution is clever, but unfortunately, there are several elements that I found unconvincing. The motive seemed a bit weak to me, and the role of a certain character felt a little far-fetched. This being said, I enjoyed reading this novel very much. The way it is told and the way it unfolds make the novel addictive, and anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery will be happy with this one.

Contrary to how I felt with most of the Kogoro Akechi novels, I found that the characters were very interesting here, with each their own personality and particularities. However, given that the characters’ psychology plays a role in the story, I think that this aspect could have been more developed. For example, the personality of a certain character is key to understand the mystery, but everything is told afterwards and we don’t really get to see it for ourselves. The focus of the story is more on the clues and the locked-room mystery in itself, but as a result, the characters’ actions felt sometimes unconvincing because we don’t really know them.

What I liked the most in this novel is how it constantly refers to famous works and authors of crime fiction. One character is an avid reader of mysteries, our narrator often refers to John Dickson Carr or Gaston Leroux, Kindaichi is compared to Antony Gillingham from A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, and so on. The case is also brought to us by a writer of fiction and he talks about the art of writing mystery fiction at the end, with a reference to Agatha Christie.

Actually, the fact that the story was told by a fictional writer of fiction was almost more interesting than the case itself. Our narrator tries his best to give us the best reading experience, pointing out important details or things we might overlook, providing us with a map of the room in question and a detailed description of everything (so that we get a fair chance to solve the mystery by ourselves), sourcing his information and even switching narration and giving us a first-hand account when necessary.

Overall, this was a pleasant mystery, it is short and reads easily, even though some descriptions were a bit hard to follow at my level (the description of the locked-room state and its resolution were the most challenging parts). I will be honest and say that I had to peek at one of the film adaptations to help me understand a scene 🤫

I will certainly go back to the Kosuke Kindaichi series at some point, but for now, I will continue my project and move on to the next award winner.