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The Impossible Case of a Japanese Locked-Room Mystery

Natalie isn’t a very interesting character until someone has the good sense to shackle her to a wall. But she got herself into this mess, and she can get herself out of it. Meanwhile, we’ll just hang out under the big palapa hut at Rancho de los Robles, the funky motel that Ford owns and has colonized with tenants like his grandparents, Dick and Liz Ford, Odile Sevigny, a psychic, and somebody’s dog. Make room under the palapa for one more.

Surprise me! Is that too much to ask of a whodunit? In lean times, there’s always the option of picking up a classic mystery that’s just been reissued, like either one of these by Seishi Yokomizo. The great Japanese crime writer, who often gets compared to the Belgian master Georges Simenon, assigns his cases to a brilliant but modest detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who uses his big brain and native shrewdness to solve insanely intricate puzzles that leave everyone else baffled, including the reader.

THE HONJIN MURDERS (Pushkin Vertigo, 189 pp., paper, $14.95), originally published as a magazine serial in 1946, is a classic locked-room murder mystery, the first in the Detective Kindaichi series. Louise Heal Kawai’s translation respects the genre conventions while observing the period idiom: The story is set in a Japanese village in 1937.

“If you are the kind of reader who enjoys reading between the lines of a story, and recall the particulars of the crime, you may already be able to guess what I am about to write next,” Yokomizo intones at the outset. Well, actually, no — despite a passion for John Dickson Carr, I am hopeless at second-guessing the diabolical minds that devise locked-room puzzlers. Here, the premise alone is dazzling: A young bride and groom repair to the bridal chamber after their wedding. The next morning they are dead, hacked to bits in “a tableau from hell.” But no one had access to the room — and the sword that did the deed is found outside the house, buried in fresh, unblemished snow.

Yokomizo teases the reader with a clear and not in the least helpful list of characters, and also supplies a meticulous illustration of the murder scene and its immediate surroundings. (That doesn’t help much, either.) Despite his benevolent assistance, the solution to this mystery came as a complete surprise — exactly what I asked for.

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