After a day of celebration, the family patriarch retires to his room. Suddenly, the other guests hear a bloodcurdling scream. The patriarch is found dead, stabbed with a weapon that’s nowhere to be found.
The room is locked, and every person is accounted for. There is no way someone could get in, do the deed, and leave without a trace. Who could have done this impossible crime?
The plot above is an example of what a honkaku is. It’s a literary genre of Japanese detective fiction that is most similar to European whodunits.
What Is a Honkaku?
Honkaku is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “orthodox.” Japanese crime author Haruta Yoshitame defines it as “a detective story that values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning.”
This kind of story functions much like a complex puzzle that needs to be solved purely through logic and deduction. In this, honkaku usually follows the same set of rules codified by mystery writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction—by which it was inspired.
Writers take special care to follow the rule of “fair play” because a hard but still solvable mystery is satisfying, while an unsolvable one is merely frustrating. This is important, as some of the mysteries can rise to a Rube Goldberg level of complexity.
Because of this, writers often highlight information in their novels. They add lists of characters, maps, floor plans, and other diagrams to help the reader visualize and solve the crime.
A honkaku usually takes place under “impossible” circumstances such as a locked room, where the crime is initially thought possible only if the culprit were of supernatural origins. The goal of the detective (and the reader) is to then disprove this by giving the crime a logical solution.
The genre was pioneered by writers such as Edogawa Rampo, Seishi Yokomizo, and Keikichi Osaka. It was popular from the 1920s to the 1940s, before it was replaced by crime novels that focused on psychological elements. However, the genre still exists in some form to this day.
Examples of Honkaku
If you want to experience what a Japanese whodunit is like, here are a few honkakus that you might want to look at.
1. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
The Ichiyanagi household is awoken by a terrible scream followed by the sound of eerie music. A newly married couple is found brutally murdered inside their locked room. The only traces found are a strange handprint and a bloodied katana thrust into the snow outside.
Kosuke Kindaichi is called to the case. But with such strange clues and a large pool of suspects, can the amateur detective solve the impossible crime?
2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
An artist is found dead inside a locked room. With the body is a diary, and inside is the artist’s plan to chop up six of his daughters, stepdaughters, and nieces to create the perfect woman.
What’s more baffling is that the plan is enacted perfectly after the artist’s death. It’s a mystery that’s haunted Japan for 40 years—and now Kiyoshi Mitarai must solve it within a week.
3. The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
Six members of a university mystery club arrive at an island where the last remaining building, the Decagon House, was host to a brutal murder less than a year ago. And one by one, they begin to fall.
Meanwhile, two members of the club who didn’t go to the meeting begin receiving mysterious letters. Something is afoot, and the island is at the center of this mystery.
4. My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura
An anonymous man plans to steal another man’s identity. He begins readings the man’s journal, but what he finds inside are the writings of a dangerous person.
Then he is captured, named as the man he was trying to impersonate, and taken to a facility. From there, identities begin to blur, and we begin to wonder who’s currently speaking and whether they’re telling the truth.
5. The Master Key by Masako Togawa
The K Apartment for Ladies is about to be moved in a highly-publicized road project. Its occupants are less than thrilled, especially the ones hiding secrets beneath its foundations.
Then the master key is lost, stolen, and re-stolen—and with it, the ability to open every door and unlock every mystery lurking within the building.
6. Malice by Keigo Higashino
Acclaimed novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is found murdered just a night before he was supposed to immigrate to Canada. His body is found inside his locked office, within his locked house.
Those who found him—his wife and best friend—have solid alibis… or so it seems. It’s not the who or how that Detective Kyochiro Kaga must find out, but the why. A cat and mouse game ensues as he tries to make sense of why the crime was done in the first place.
7. The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo
The Village of Eight Graves takes its name from an old legend. While taking refuge within the village, eight samurai are massacred for the treasure they possess.
Centuries later, the village is again struck by tragedy. A villager goes on a murder spree before vanishing into the woods. His infant son survives the slaughter.
In the present, a slew of poisonings begins to trouble the village. At the center is a mysterious young man, who must find out why the deaths are happening and why he’s being framed.
8. The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo
The Black Lizard features a master jewelry thief and the detective pursuing her. Though both are attracted to one another, they also can’t compromise the ideals and circumstances they live by.
Beast in the Shadows follows a mystery writer who begins an affair with a married woman. Her claims of being menaced by an ex-lover get him involved in a tale of secret identities, violent sexuality, and questions about innocence.
9. The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
Kinue Nomura’s torn body is found inside a locked room. The only thing missing is the part of her that bore one of the most beautiful full-body tattoos ever made.
Kenzo Matsushita, a doctor, is the first to discover the macabre scene. As his detective brother investigates the case, he feels compelled to assist in every way. But Kenzo has a secret and his involvement twists the case into something as intricate as Kinue’s missing tattoos.
10. The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko
The 8 Mansion, so called for its figure-8 shape, is the scene of two impossible crimes. First, the owner’s son is shot dead with a crossbow. Then a witness to the first murder is killed the same way.
Police Inspector Kyozo Hayani is called to the case. And while a culprit is swiftly identified and arrested, the detective knows someone else has blood on their hands.
11. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Yasuko Hanaoka lives a quiet life, working in a bento shop and taking care of her daughter. Then her ex-husband, Togashi, appears to extort money from them.
The situation escalates into violence, with Togashi ending up dead on the floor. It’s a good thing their next-door neighbor knows how to cover up a body. And when the body does turn up, the case becomes a high-stakes battle between two cunning minds on opposite sides of the crime.
12. Devils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki
After a sleepless night, Takahashi receives a call from an old friend, Sonomura. He claims to have decoded a secret message and knows exactly when and where a murder will take place. And if they don’t hurry, they’ll miss seeing it later tonight!
But Takahashi knows Sonomura suffers from a mental illness and is reluctant to believe him. Still, they stake out the scene, and to his shock, become witnesses to a slaughter.
Japanese Detective Fiction
Honkaku-ha is only one particular school within Japanese detective fiction. There’s also the shakai-ha (“social school”), which was a more realistic story that deals with society’s place in crime. It was created as an answer to honkaku’s perceived lack of realism and plausibility. This is much like how hardboiled fiction came to be as a reaction to Western whodunits.
There’s also shinhonkaku-ha (“neo-orthodox school”), a modern revival of the honkaku school. The distinction between the two can be difficult. Like honkaku, shinhonkaku focused on puzzle-like crimes, but tended to embrace the mystery’s implausibility. It sometimes goes into metafictional levels, where the prose draws the reader to the fact that it is fiction, and need not follow reality.
Japanese detective fiction offers crime stories beyond the Western world. While the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (mostly British and American writers) does have a large influence over the genre, Japanese writers have worked hard to create their own blend of crime fiction—thus, the three schools above.
And thanks to increasing efforts to translate these works, more people can now enjoy whodunits written from different cultural, social, and political perspectives.
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!