Solving the Honjin murders

The Honjin Murders Cover art


This is a spoiler-free review. Try to avoid spoilers in the comments!

On a lazy evening, I was strolling past an aisle of a local bookstore when an intriguing book caught my attention. I'd gone with a friend who wanted to explore the city, and had no intention of making a purchase myself, but the crimson red cover drew me in. The book was small too – at about 200 pages. It was The Honjin Murders: the debut novel of Kosuke Kindaichi, Japan's Sherlock Holmes.

I thought it'd make for a fun Honkaku mystery solving game, and picked it up.

The Puzzle

The challenge is a classic locked room puzzle: a couple is killed on the night of their wedding, and there is no apparent way the killer could've escaped. Among other clues in the crime scene, there is a Koto – a traditional Japanese music instrument – stained in blood with one of its strings plucked, and a katana plunged into the snow.

The book revolves around the family of the bridegroom, the Koto, a mysterious three-fingered man, and private investigator Kosuke.

The Review

While I didn't like the solution – more on that below – I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, and can recommend the book solely for that reason. The author has skilfully crafted an eerie mood in surprisingly few pages [1]

The book opens with a narrator who speaks to the reader in first person. From start to finish, the tone is very consistent, and the narration doesn't falter once. The writing flows smoothly between first-person dialogue addressing the reader, and third-person prose summarizing the accounts of villagers who witnessed the crime. The harsh winters of post war Japan with several traditional Japanese elements splendidly sell the haunting atmosphere of K village – where the story takes place.

All of this is delivered under 200 pages. I'm impressed by writers who write without cruft. What I'm less impressed by, is the solution to the puzzle...

Did I solve it?

Nope. Not even close. I didn't have the slightest clue to the killer's identity even as I was a page away from the reveal. I doubt anyone did. The motivation and method of crime were equally bizarre.

I like to think of whodunnit mysteries as a game between the writer and their audience. If I can guess who the killer is before its given away, I win. Of course, the writer has an upper hand with their ability to twist the narration and hide obvious clues with red-herrings and other devices. When abused beyond reason however, this leaves a sour taste, like in my reading of the Honjin murders.

Some honkaku solutions are deceptively simple; while others are intricate, yet sensible. This one was maddening. The method of the crime was more obtuse than a Rube Goldberg machine – impossible to piece together with the clues handed to you throughout the book. The killer's motivation was no better, hinging on a last minute reveal about mental illnesses that were only loosely alluded to in no more than two sentences throughout the book.

As if that wasn't enough, early on in the book, the author explicitly mentions his distaste for cheap cop-outs in locked-room puzzles, only to use a strikingly similar one himself in the end.

Despite all this, I still deem this book to be a great piece of writing – barring the ending, it nails everything else. Perhaps, I'd have felt differently if it dragged on for longer before the reveal. But it didn't. It was short.

Similarly short is my current attempt at solving a honkaku – The Master Key.


  1. The translator, Louise Heal Kawai, deserves equal credit.