Immense satisfaction comes from exercising your brain, and even more from finding the answer to a complex mental puzzle. It’s why many enjoy crosswords, chess, puzzles and Rubik’s cubes: for the sheer joy of thinking hard and working things out.
Japan’s honkaku mystery novels, however, present the ultimate mental challenge.
What are honkaku novels?
Originating in 1925, Japanese crime author Saburo Koga defined this sub-genre of mystery fiction as:
‘A detective story that values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning.’
Honkaku novels urge readers to solve seemingly impossible 'locked-room' crimes with the help of ‘fair-play’ clues which enable them to find the missing piece of the puzzle – and unleash their inner Sherlock Holmes in the process.
Also known as ‘orthodox’ mysteries, Japanese honkaku novels are inspired by, and seek to imitate, the Golden Age of Western detective fiction (1920-40’s) – driven by authors like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Formulaic and plot-driven, they highlight information over style, meaning the setting and characters are often highlighted from the first page. Diagrams, maps, and pictures may also be dotted throughout the novel to help reader’s solve these whodunit and howdunit mysteries.
Pioneered by Edogawa Rampo, Seishi Yokomizo and Keikichi Osaka, Japan’s honkaku mysteries were hugely popular in 1920’s and 1930’s before a new emphasis fell on psychological-focused crime novels.
Soji Shimada – who helped revive honkaku novels in the 1980’s, says these works are:
‘Not only literature but also, to a greater or lesser extent, a game’
Want to play? Here are our top 5 honkaku mystery novels.
The Ginza Ghost by Keikichi Osaka (1932-1947)
(Translated by Ho-Ling Wong in 2017: Locked Room International)
A collection of 12 gripping stories from honkaku master Keikichi Osaka. We read about a train which kills pigs at the exact same time and place on the track every night. An impossible murder on the roof of a locked department store. A boy who vanishes during a shift working at a lighthouse. Ski tracks which lead away from a murder house… then disappear. Osaka’s use of setting in these mysteries is spellbinding; while grounded in reality, an eerie, mystical feel heightens suspense throughout. A hauntingly good honkaku.
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (1946)
(Translated by Louise Heal Kawai in 2019: Pushkin Vertigo)
Starring amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi (who goes on to feature in 77 honkaku novels!), meet The Honjin Murders. The setting: a 1930’s upper-class family wedding at village inn. Morning comes, the happy couple have been murdered and a katana sword is found in the snow outside (with no footprints in sight), as well a 3-finger hand print on the bedroom wall. Throughout, Seishi Yokomizo pays homage to Western detective authors including Ellery Queen, Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The end result is a locked-room mystery that’ll give you goosebumps.
Japan’s honkaku adaptation of Golden Age detective fiction was revived in the early 1980s – now called ‘shin honkaku’ or ‘new orthodox’ – by authors Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji.
Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada (1981)
(Translated by Shika MacKenzie and Ross Mackenzie in 2005: IBC Books)
A man dies in a locked room. Yet, (listed in his diary), his plan to chop up 6 of his daughters, stepdaughters, and nieces into parts becomes reality – and they’re buried in different locations across Japan. 40 years on, detectives Kiyoshi Mitarai and Kazumi Ishioka must find out who did this, and how it happened.Kazumi Ishioka takes on the case because:
We agree. Each victim has a different zodiac sign; but the big question is: why is each body buried at a different depth?
‘But of all the mysteries I’ve read, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was, without a doubt, the most intriguing.’
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (1987)
(Translated by Ho-Ling Wong in 2015: Locked Room International)
In Yukito Ayatsuji’s version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), he tells us in the first page:
‘Detective fiction is a kind of intellectual game. A logical game that gives readers sensations about detectives or authors’.
This sums up honkaku.
In The Decagon House Murders, a university mystery book club takes a trip to Tsunojim island to stay in ‘The Decagon House’ – where the property owner, his wife and two servants have died mysteriously. There, they discover 7 plates: listing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th victims as well as ‘murderer’ and ‘detective’, implying their roles. As each murders happens, these plates are found glued to the door of each victim’s room. Is the murderer one (or more) of the students? An island resident? Witty, theatrical, shocking and puzzling – Ayatsuji’s first English-translated work is a cracker.
The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa (1989)
(Translated by Ho-Ling Wong in 2016: Locked Room International)As the name suggests, this is a genuine puzzle. We begin with a map and a list of characters: 3 university students who visit an island with moai statues that contain clues to find diamond jewellery one of their grandfather’s hid before his death. Throw in a storm, a double murder in a locked room, more murders, and we get sucked into a pulsating plot that tests our powers of deduction and climaxes in a breath-taking ending. A beautiful Japanese locked-room mystery.
Other awesome honkaku mystery novels to read:
- Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House
- Seishi Yokomizo: The Inugami Curse
- Tetsuya Ayukawa: The Red Locked Room, Whose Body?
- Akimitsu Takagi: The Tattoo Murder Case
- Masako Togawa: The Master Key
- Keigo Higashino: Newcomer
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