I finished reading 本陣殺人事件!
This is my first book by 横溝正史, an author venerable and prolific enough to have a prestigious mystery novel prize named after him, and the debut novel of 金田一耕助 one of the most prominent Japanese literary 名探偵.
Well, technically this is a collection of three stories: 本陣殺人事件, 車井戸はなぜ軋る, and 黒猫亭事件. With 名探偵 it seems like publishers publish stories all over the place instead of treating them like a series, and I bought this copy when I still wasn’t sure if I’d want to read all of them (whereas now I might have tried to go for a complete case files or the like) – but they are all early stories.
Thanks to a heap of historical and culturally specific vocabulary, it’s probably the most difficult book (and the longest) I’ve read so far (which isn’t necessarily saying a gigantic amount), and also one of my favorite!
what I thought of 本陣殺人事件
To me the overwhelming strength of Yokomizo’s writing shown in these novels is the attention to detail in the set-up. The whole first half of the title story is just stepping through the details of the crime, the days leading up to it, the social climate of the village in which it occurred, and the members of the family involved and their histories and personalities. But Yokomizo manages to make what’s basically long uninterrupted exposition feel gripping, by artfully transitioning from one topic to another (i.e. starting with Yokomizo himself visiting the estate where it happened, then transitioning to talk about the first sign of something unusual, etc.) while seeding as he goes details that will be picked up later – for example, you hear in brief that a couple was murdered and ghostly koto music was heard long before the night is described in more detail, so you’re rewarded for paying attention and the full scope of the situation slowly fills in in front of your eyes.
It’s a really cool feeling!
And amazing too is the feeling (that Yokomizo sells wonderfully) that you could genuinely take a train to that village, that you too could walk among those same buildings and feel in your bones how even know the effects of the crime echoed down through the decades, that you could chat with an old-timer and get their hazy recollections of how it all went down.
That feeling of specificity of place (even as the towns are only ever named by an initial and also, obviously, don’t really exist) is constructed through that attention to detail, but also through tying the crime and the characters within it directly to the specific era, year, and region of Japan. The murder in 車井戸はなぜ軋る, for example, couldn’t have happened in any year except 1946, and an even better example is the very title of 本陣殺人事件. It’s not the name of the estate or the family where the murder happened, but rather it’s a reference to how they earned their nobility and power in the area: in the Edo period, (this is a rough recollected summary) to limit regional power in the post-sengoku era, feudal lords had to travel to the capital at Edo on a certain regular basis, and a 本陣 was an inn specifically designed to cater to them in these travels. So this family earned nobility as a waypoint in the middle of nowhere for more powerful families to get back and forth, producing a prestige and class set apart from others in this village, but fading in the post-restoration era and not really quite standing on its own the way big city prestige and nobility might.
This then deeply ties into the murder, as it could only have happened in that context because the motive is specifically tied into that prestige dynamic, and because an important coincidence would not have happened if the house wasn’t right in the middle of the main thoroughfare of the area.
I think that’s super cool! And at it’s best produces that sense of a mystery novel that works both as a thriller and as some kind of literary commentary on the times.
It also makes for a ton of vocabulary to learn, as basically zero details aren’t specific to Japan and the times in some way. It’s the kind of book where 屏風 is said like three hundred times, and not just any 屏風, but an ornate 屏風 featuring a particular episode in the life of folklore character 葛の葉. Another word I expected to encounter not nearly so often is 欄間 and yet it’s always crucial to notice the light trickling in from the 欄間, or to clamber up and spot a grisly murder inside through it because the 雨戸 or what-have-you is shut fast.
On the flipside though, I didn’t find the conclusions quite as fascinating as the set-ups. They’re good, don’t get me wrong! But it did make me kind of hunger for the literature where like, the meticulous description of rival families’ lineages and fortunes would lead to like, equally deep and trenchant literary arcs, and not like, a murder with a bit of a twist.
I’ve previously read a collection of early 明智小五郎 stories by 江戸川乱歩, and the two 名探偵 form an obvious point of comparison!
The characters themselves, I honestly don’t distinguish in my head really at all year. 金田一 has a stutter when he’s excited and shaggy hair he touches a lot, and he’s a private detective while 明智 is an amateur who solves crimes via psychology – but like… at this point in my head they’re both affable unassuming detectives who love to talk about mystery novels and have a self-insert author friend they tell about crimes.
It doesn’t help that 金田一 is portrayed like this:
and the picture on the 明智 collection I’ve read looks like this:
I’m sure they’ll be more differentiated in future novels, as in these intros they tend not to do that much, but for now I guess the way to tell them apart is that:
Akechi is the detective listed in volume 2 of Case Closed:
Kindaichi is the detective listed in volume 6 of Case Closed, and also he has a hat:
Aside from all that though, the two authors’ styles are honestly really interestingly different!
Ranpo excels at ghastly, horror-tinged detail, eccentric characters, and clever twists, and sets things around Tokyo (after all, it’s in his name)
Yokomizo excels at meticulous detail, long social histories, and thorough explanation, and tends to set things in 岡山 and the surrounding region.
In fact – one of these stories, 黒猫亭事件, I didn’t like as much of the others, because it was a story set in the area surrounding Tokyo, featuring horror-tinged details and eccentric characters! It felt like something Ranpo would have done better - and in retrospect, there’s stories in the Ranpo collection I think Yokomizo would have done a lot better too!
Of course, both authors are incredibly prolific across decades, so it will be interesting to see if these first impressions of mine about them hold true for much longer. I’ll certainly be reading more at some point! In the later stories, 獄門島 is referenced multiple times here, so that seems to be the next one to read, and I’m excited to see it’s actually a full-length long novel with chapter breaks. I’ve read weirdly few of those so far! It always turns out to be isolated short stories and novellas…
One thing I’ll also do is watch the movie version of the Honjin Murders! I’m really curious if I pictured the climax correctly. I’ll talk about that in the Extensive Listening thread when I do watch it!
Today I also finished something that I enjoyed a lot in a completely different way: オールカラー 楽しく覚える！ 都道府県
This is a non-fiction book meant for Japanese kids to help them get to know the 47 都道府県 (prefectures and whatnot) that make up Japan.
The way I read it was some time ago (a year? half a year?) I entered each of the 都道府県 into my anki deck, and as they came up as new cards, I read that section of the book and entered in some basic information about it to put a bit of detail to the name. Recently I got a little anxious to finish it up so I could import more cards to my deck without worrying about slowing down the ratio of new prefectures even further, so I set my anki deck to order by date added and finished off the ten or so remaining prefectures today.
While I certainly did not retain all the (many) different regional crafts, wildlife, and heritage sites described, and the book did get a little repetitive as time went on, overall I thought this was a really fun way to learn some geography, and I’d recommend doing something like this to anyone reading novels in the language. Stuff like Yokomizo living in 岡山 in the stories in 本陣殺人事件 meant so much more to me as grounding details than they would have if I had no idea of the top of my head where that was.
Before I didn’t even know, for example, that there was a region called 中国 and not just a country.
I guess the next thing to do would be to apply the same method to the historical 藩… but I think I’ll let those creep in naturally first for a while!
If you want an impromptu quiz, here's the order they turned up for me
Green → Purple → Blue → Red → Yellow
I don’t think I’d do great at recalling these this way! I think I could safely get halfish now, but the others would be hard to come up with and it would take a while.
But if confronted with the name of the prefecture I think I’d do okay at ballparking it.
I rolled for the next thing to read, and it came up with No.6!
Funny, I just mentioned in another thread I had a copy of that sitting around from when it was a book club pick… it’s one where my reading level has probably leap-frogged from where it was when I bought it, so I’m hoping it will go quickly!
Also, I’m not counting this towards any goals, but I read the free oneshot by the Chainsaw Man author that’s the talk of the town today. I saw someone mention it on Twitter, saw it trending, and a friend recommended it. It’s an emotional 143 page story about making manga.
It’s really good! More evidence suggesting I should read Chainsaw Man…