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Seishi Yokomizo – The Honjin Murders

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A Japanese classic.

Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo (Pushkin Press)
Pages: 181
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27500-8
First Published: 1946; 5th December 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 本陣殺人事件 (Honjin satsujin jiken – The Case Of The Honjin Murder)
Translated by: Louise Heal Kawai

In the early hours of the morning after a wedding, screams and the sound of a koto being plucked are heard from the bridal room. The couple have been killed and there are hand-prints, three fingered, on the walls. A mysterious man had arrived in the hours prior to the wedding.

I would venture to guess that you’ve never read a novel quite like this one. A book with similarities? Quite possibly – this a book influenced by others. But unless you’ve read Yokomizo before, it will still be new to you. The Honjin Murders is as original today as it likely was in 1946. Yokomizo creates a story within a story; the basic idea is that an unnamed writer – our narrator – is recounting a true-to-him story. It’s an interesting enough idea as it is, but Yokomizo’s use of real world classical and then-contemporary crime novels seems to not only influence the fiction and the fiction inside that fiction, but is quite possibly linked to Yokomizo’s own reading. The narrator employs these crime novels – Christie, Conan Doyle, among others – in various ways; they inform the way he writes but they also inform the crime he’s writing about, with the detective of this story within a story – Kosuke Kindaichi, who stars in a total of 77 later books – loving crime novels and able to thus recognise the books on the shelves of the victim’s family which every other inspector believes unimportant to the investigation.

The above is actually something you experience later on in your reading – the first thing you become aware of is the part of the story at which the narrator starts his tale. In a way unlike many others, Yokomizo, through his narrator, begins the tale at the effective end – you see the events that precede the murder, and then you hear about the discovery of the bodies. And then you get a diagram of the murder scene, answers about most of the people who are there at the time, even the suspected murderer is cited.

You’d be forgiven at this point in the story for wondering with what the narrator plans to fill the rest of the book, because the rest consists of the vast majority of the pages. What he does is answer almost all the W questions – ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘who’, and some of the ‘how’ – but leaves out the rest of the ‘how’, a bit of the ‘who’, and all of the ‘why’. This is a whydunnit more than any ‘who’; the ‘why’ is everything here, it carries the story, and it works incredibly well.

The ‘why’ is answered with aplomb, even if the summing up of all the detective’s discoveries is done at the end in one big telling scene. Some of it forms a reminder of history, earlier than the 1930s setting – to note anything further than that would spoil the story. This is a book that has aged, but aged rather well, and the storytelling is such that it’ll likely remain famous for a long time.

The Honjin Murders is an interesting one. It doesn’t seem like a page turner, but you’ll finish it quickly. It doesn’t seem like there are going to be red herrings, and why, anyway, would you read a book when almost all the answers are given straight away? But it will continue to surprise you. (And given everything mentioned so far, the idea of the initially confused reader was likely in Yokomizo’s plan all along.) If you want a crime novel where the (real life) author’s sleuthing exceeds the fictional detective’s, read this book. It is fantastic.

I received this book for review.

Dodie Smith – I Capture The Castle

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The continuation of 1800s novels.

Publisher: N/A (but I’d wager Vintage’s a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: N/A (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-46087-9)
First Published: 1949
Date Reviewed: 16th August 2012
Rating: 5/5

Cassandra lives with her family in a house adjoining a ruinous castle. From having a fair amount of money they have become poor, and it doesn’t look like Mr Mortmain will start writing again anytime soon – despite his wife spending time outside in the nude in order to commune with nature. But then the Cottons arrive, American brothers who have just inherited the estate the castle stands on. And far from being angry about the unpaid rent they’re positively entranced by what they’ve found.

I Capture The Castle is a rather quirky novel about relationships and the power of money. It presents itself initially as relaxing and intriguing, but as soon as it gets a hold of you it branches off, showing deeper colours, just like the women’s dresses after they decide to dye them into new life. What’s particularly appealing about the book is that it is heavily influenced by Victorian literature, both obviously and subtly. There are worded references to Jane Austen and the Brontës, but further than that the book’s story itself feels like it could have been written by, say Austen. Indeed it can be so easy at times to snuggle down, knowing that you’re reading the work of an admirer, that when Smith diverts from the era of chasteness it’s rather a shock. It would not be wrong to say that I Capture The Castle is Austen without the limitation of Victorian etiquette.

I am not so sure I should like the facts of life, but I have got over the bitter disappointment I felt when I first heard about them, and one obviously has to try them sooner or later.

And the book truly strikes a chord. Told from Cassandra’s point of view, via her diary, often she will say something that is so compelling and always considered by ourselves, but rarely shared, such as her ruminations over the idea of her sister wanting a wedding rather than a marriage.

“As we’ll never be able to stop her turning on the Early Victorian charm, we ought to accentuate it.”

Referring back to the Victorian influence, it is apt to discuss the characters. Rose, for example, is paramount in Smith’s dedication of her work to Victorian literature; the character has gathered her knowledge of how to conduct a courtship via the processes in place a century before her own, and the reactions her “victim” experiences due to her theatrics are duly recorded by Cassandra. Rose feels it is time she had money after having lived in near poverty for so long, and if the opportunity arises she will take it. Cassandra is less passionate than Rose, and tends to keep her feelings to her journals, but her potential to love is huge. The Father, Mortmain is rather random in his actions and one never knows if he is working or not, and Topaz, his wife, is completely bohemian. The family is completed by a brother, Thomas, and Stephen, an unpaid servant who is devoted to Cassandra. The Cotton family are colourful too, if less so. The collection of such a set of characters means that whenever the narrative slows down – which it does a lot because the plot as a whole is slow and rather simple – it’s not long before you’re laughing, and as such it’s difficult to want to put it down.

Of course a big draw for the reader, considering that the novel has a simple, fairly predictable plot, is surely the factor of the house/castle in addition to the cast of characters. Though difficult to imagine at times, it is an interesting and individual setting that permits the exploration of history without the burden of superfluous or detailed information.

The romance may be a love square, or perhaps even a love hexagonal – Smith, although agreeing to honour the well-established trope, takes a while to release her hold on the information, so that whilst certain parts are predictable, she might attempt to lead you down the garden path, protesting against readers who have worked it out already.

I asked him if he liked Rose’s dress – mostly to change the conversation.
He said: “Not very much, if you want the honest truth – it’s too fussy for me. But she looks very pretty in it. Knows it too, doesn’t she?”
There was a twinkle in his eye which took off the rudeness. And I must admit that Rose was knowing it all over the place.

I Capture The Castle attempts and succeeds in being the very sort of book a lover of both classics and contemporary work wishes to read – it combines all the trappings of the 1800s novel with the boldness of the early 20th Century, and such boldness enables there to be a further blend of the 1930s and our current 21st Century present. Indeed so wrapped up in the past can Smith become, that mentions of technology, for example a gramophone, may cause you to pause for a moment so that you can adjust your visions of women in Victorian dresses to women of later fashions.

And in addition to all of the above, I Capture The Castle is surely a novel of the arts. Cassandra likes writing, the text is structured as her diary, and the family is forever trying to get Mr Mortmain to author another book. Topaz is an artist and model, and the Cottons are bathed in the world of literature.

“Look, Mortmain, look! Oh, don’t you long to be an old, old man in a lamp-lit inn?”
“Yes, particularly one with rheumatism,” said Father. “My dear, you’re an ass.”

Smith’s work is an absolute triumph.

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