Whodunit, Japanese Style

(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.

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