Honkaku mystery books are a genre of mystery fiction that originated in Japan and is characterized by a focus on logic and puzzle-solving. The term “honkaku” roughly translates to “authentic” or “genuine” in English, and is used to describe mysteries that emphasize the importance of clues, evidence, and deduction.
Honkaku mysteries typically feature intricate plots that challenge the reader to solve the mystery alongside the detective. The protagonist is often a detective who employs a methodical and logical approach to solving the crime, and there is often a “locked room” or other seemingly impossible aspect to the crime that requires clever deduction to unravel.
Some well-known examples of honkaku mystery books include
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (1946)
This classic novel is considered the first true honkaku mystery and features a locked room murder in a remote inn.
One of Japan’s greatest classic murder mysteries, introducing their best loved detective, translated into English for the first timeAmazon
In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions around the village.
Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi household are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. Soon, amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is on the scene to investigate what will become a legendary murder case, but can this scruffy sleuth solve a seemingly impossible crime?
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada (1981)
A mystery novelist sets out to solve a bizarre serial murder case that involves the zodiac signs.
Astrologer, fortune teller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must solve a macabre murder mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years—in just one week.Amazon
With the help of his freelance illustrator friend, Kiyoshi sets out to answer the questions that have haunted the country ever since: Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, ‘the perfect woman’?
With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion—pieced together like a great stage tragedy—challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain falls.
This quintessential Japanese “logic mystery”—eerie, gory, and intriguing—combines the puzzle-solving of Golden Age Western detective fiction with elements of shocking horror and dark humor.
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (1987)
Ten people are invited to an isolated island to participate in a murder game, but soon find themselves in a real-life mystery.
Taking its cues from Agatha Christie’s locked-room classic And Then There Were None, the setup is this: The members of a university detective-fiction club, each nicknamed for a favorite crime writer (Poe, Carr, Orczy, Van Queen, Leroux and — yes — Christie), spend a week on remote Tsunojima Island, attracted to the place, and its eerie 10-sided house, because of a spate of murders that transpired the year before. That collective curiosity will, of course, be their undoing.Amazon
As the students approach Tsunojima in a hired fishing boat, ‘the sunlight shining down turned the rippling waves to silver. The island lay ahead of them, wrapped in a misty veil of dust,’ its sheer, dark cliffs rising straight out of the sea, accessible by one small inlet. There is no electricity on the island, and no telephones, either.
A fresh round of violent deaths begins, and Ayatsuji’s skillful, furious pacing propels the narrative. As the students are picked off one by one, he weaves in the story of the mainland investigation of the earlier murders. This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s also unabashed entertainment.”
Naoko by Keigo Higashino (1998)
A retired police detective investigates the mysterious death of a woman and uncovers a complex web of lies and deceit.
Winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Award, Naoko is a black comedy of hidden minds and lives. Navigating the interstices between the real and the unreal with perfect plot twists, this page-turner is also a critique of gender relations by a male Japanese writer, one of their best-sellng.Amazon
An everyman, Heisuke works hard at a factory job to provide for his wife, Naoko, and young daughter, Monami. He takes pleasure from the small things, like breakfast with both of them after a night shift. His placid life is rocked when, looking up from his microwave dinner one evening, he realizes the TV news that he wasn’t paying attention to is reporting a catastrophic bus accident and the names of his loved ones.
When Monami finally wakes from a coma, she seems to think she’s Naoko, who has died protecting her daughter. More disturbingly, the girl knows things only Naoko could know. The family life that resumes between the modest man and a companion who looks like his daughter bu seems like his dead wife is ticklish-funny until it begins hurtling toward a soul-shattering end.
In addition to winning Japan’s top mystery prize, Naoko inspired a blockbuster movie. Read this work, a match for the later Bunuel, to find out why Higashino is considered the most ambitious and versatile mystery hand at work in Japan.
Shinjuku Shark by Arimasa Osawa (2000)
A private detective searches for a missing person in the seedy underworld of Shinjuku, Tokyo.
A serial cop-killer is running rampant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward and only one man has the connections and the courage to find and stop him — The Shark. Filled with volatile characters, each wiht his own unique ties, Shinjuku Shark is a masterpiece of nonstop tension.Amazon
Arimasa Osawa is one of Japan’s leading hardboiled novelists, influenced by American authors such as Elmore Leonard. His famous work, Shinjuku Shark (the first installment in a series) won the Eiji Yoshikawa Award for fiction and the Naoki Prize.
The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizo (1951)
A wealthy family is torn apart by greed, jealousy, and murder in this classic whodunit.
A fiendish classic murder mystery, from one of Japan’s greatest crime writers, featuring the country’s best-loved detectiveAmazon
In 1940s Japan, the wealthy head of the Inugami clan dies, and his family eagerly await the reading of the will. But no sooner are its strange details revealed than a series of bizarre, gruesome murders begins. Detective Kindaichi must unravel the clan’s terrible secrets of forbidden liaisons, monstrous cruelty, and hidden identities to find the murderer, and lift the curse wreaking its bloody revenge on the Inugamis.
The Inugami Curse is a fiendish, intricately plotted classic mystery from a giant of Japanese crime writing, starring the legendary detective Kosuke Kindaichi.
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (2005)
A brilliant mathematician helps his neighbor cover up a murder, but the police detective on the case is equally brilliant and determined.
Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced, single mother who thought she had finally escaped her abusive ex-husband Togashi. When he shows up one day to extort money from her, threatening both her and her teenaged daughter Misato, the situation quickly escalates into violence and Togashi ends up dead on her apartment floor. Overhearing the commotion, Yasuko’s next door neighbor, middle-aged high school mathematics teacher Ishigami, offers his help, disposing not only of the body but plotting the cover-up step-by-step.Amazon
When the body turns up and is identified, Detective Kusanagi draws the case and Yasuko comes under suspicion. Kusanagi is unable to find any obvious holes in Yasuko’s manufactured alibi and yet is still sure that there’s something wrong. Kusanagi brings in Dr. Manabu Yukawa, a physicist and college friend who frequently consults with the police. Yukawa, known to the police by the nickname Professor Galileo, went to college with Ishigami. After meeting up with him again, Yukawa is convinced that Ishigami had something to do with the murder. What ensues is a high level battle of wits, as Ishigami tries to protect Yasuko by outmaneuvering and outthinking Yukawa, who faces his most clever and determined opponent yet.
Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada (1982)
A bizarre murder takes place in a house with a twisted architecture that defies logic.
The Crooked House sits on a snowbound cliff overlooking icy seas at the remote northern tip of Japan. A curious place for the millionaire Kozaburo Hamamoto to build a house, but even more curious is the house itself – a disorienting maze of sloping floors and strangely situated staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny, lifesize dolls. When a man is found dead in one of the mansion’s rooms, murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances, the police are called. But they are unable to solve the puzzle, and powerless to protect the party of house guests as more bizarre deaths follow.
Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, the renowned sleuth, famous for unmasking the culprit behind the notorious Umezawa family massacre. Surely if anyone can crack these cryptic murders he will. But you have all the clues too – can you solve the mystery of the murders in The Crooked House first?Amazon
Six Four: A Novel by Hideo Yokoyama (2012)
A police detective investigates the kidnapping of a young girl and must navigate the complex politics of the police force and the media.
For five days, the parents of a seven-year-old Japanese schoolgirl sat and listened to the demands of their daughter’s kidnapper. They would never learn his identity. And they would never see their daughter alive again.
Fourteen years later, the mystery remains unsolved. The police department’s press officer―Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective who was involved in the original case and who is now himself the father of a missing daughter―is forced to revisit the botched investigation. The stigma of the case known as “Six Four” has never faded; the police’s failure remains a profound source of shame and an unending collective responsibility.
Mikami does not aspire to solve the crime. He has worked in the department for his entire career, and while he has his own ambitions and loyalties, he is hoping simply to reach out to the victim’s family and to help finally put the notorious case to rest. But when he spots an anomaly in the files, he uncovers secrets he never could have imagined. He would never have even looked if he’d known what he would find.Amazon
The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa (1989)
A group of tourists on a remote island must solve a series of puzzles and riddles to uncover the truth behind a murder.
In his introduction, Soji Shimada, the doyen of the Japanese form of Golden Age detective fiction known as shin honkaku, calls this novel a masterpiece and Publisher’s Weekly gives it a starred review.
Three students from Eito University in Kyoto travel to a remote island populated with moai statues in order to find a hidden treasure, but several murders—including one impossible–occur before it can be located.
Don’t be fooled by the bland description. The locked room murder is brilliant and worthy of John Dickson Carr at his best, and the dying message and chain of deduction leading to the killer rival anything written by Ellery Queen. And neither Carr nor Queen ever combined both in one novel.
Locked Room International discovers and publishes impossible crime mysteries from all over the world, and by authors past and present..Amazon