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Whodunit, Japanese Style
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Whodunit, Japanese Style

A review of Yukito Ayatsuji’s 'The Mill House Murders.'

(Photograph by Getty Images)

The Japanese word honkaku means, roughly, orthodox. It also refers to a mid-20th century literary genre “that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning,” according to writer Haruta Yoshitame. These whodunits are making a comeback in Japan, and an excellent new English translation suggests they’ll find appeal far beyond their country of origin.

Inspired by English models such as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, honkaku novels provide readers with all the details they need to solve the mystery, scrupulously avoiding deus ex machina resolutions or improbable plot twists. They often employ a “locked room crime,” where a murder has been committed somewhere from which the murderer could not have escaped. The Mill House Murders, written by Yukito Ayatsuji (a pen name for the author Naoyuki Uchida) and recently translated into English by Ho-Ling Wong, follows this classic template.

The novel focuses on Fujinuma Kiichi, the son of a famous painter, who is confined to a wheelchair after a terrible car accident leaves him grotesquely disfigured. He retreats to a specially built mansion in the countryside, where he stores his father’s artwork and lives only with household staff and Yurie, his much younger wife and former ward. The couple hasn’t left the house in a decade.

Each year, Fujinuma receives a visit from four admirers of his father’s artwork, on the anniversary of his death. They include a doctor, a priest, an art dealer, and an art history professor. When they gather on September 28, 1985, they are joined by Masaki Shingo, an old friend of Fujinuma who lost his fiancée in the aforementioned car accident and is temporarily living in his friend’s house to escape unknown—but perhaps legal—difficulties. It proves to be an ill-fated gathering: Fujinuma’s housekeeper falls to her death from a balcony in a storm; the priest vanishes from an enclosed upper floor whose only exit was closely watched; a painting goes missing; and, most dramatically of all, someone brutally murders Masaki. After a short investigation hampered by a ferocious storm, the police conclude that the priest stole the painting, killed Masaki, and fled.

One year later, the three remaining friends gather as usual at the secluded mansion, this time joined by one more unexpected guest: Kiyoshi Shimada, the detective hero of The Mill House Murders. Another storm looms. While their thoughts turn to the previous year’s tragedy, a threatening note appears under Fujinuma’s door—and then, alerted by a scream from Yuri, the group finds the doctor and new housekeeper murdered. With danger afoot, Kiyoshi races to solve the mystery before the killer strikes again.

Ayatsuji carefully structures the narrative of The Mill House Murders so that it becomes much more than a locked-room mystery. As is common in honkaku, the book opens with a detailed map of the setting and a cast of characters. Each chapter is precisely plotted onto the map, guiding readers through the novel’s action from room to room and always making clear the location and moment in time. After a short opening prologue introducing the murders from the past year, the narrative alternates between past and present, with a chapter set in 1986 always followed by one recounting the events from 1985. At times Ayatsuji even repeats paragraphs or pages of narrative: The present always sheds light on the past, while the recollection of past events provides clues about what is occurring in the present.

Moreover, the narrative voice changes as we shift between past and present.  The novel feels as though it proceeds through a single harmonious day, albeit with some slight variations. But the past chapters are narrated in the third person, while the present ones are always in the first person, spoken by the master of the house. This subtle shift turns out to be important to the mystery’s resolution, in a deeply satisfying way.

Honkaku today shows no signs of decline in Japan: civil organizations like the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan and the Kyoto University Mystery Club cultivate and promote it. Moreover Pushkin Vertigo, an imprint of Pushkin Press that specializes in international crime fiction, has thus far published translations of about ten titles in the genre. With The Mill House Murders, Ayatsuji delivers a first-rate mystery, whose tight plot and deliberate structure will keep readers guessing until the very end—and might even clue them into a wide new world of international mystery.

Peter C. Meilaender is professor of political science and dean of religion, humanities, and global studies at Houghton University.