“In Praise of Honkaku” (by John Pugmire)

For several years now—ever since EQMM lost its most illustrious contributor of classical mysteries, Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008)—I’ve been putting out appeals for more whodunits and “impossible crime” stories. Few writers in the U.S. or U.K. have responded with submissions that fall into that category. Currently, our most dependable contributor in that genre is the translator John Pugmire. The EQMM issue on sale now, November, contains a translation from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong of Norizuki Rintaro’s “The Lure of the Green Door.” It was adapted (put into smooth, literary English from a rough translation) by John Pugmire. John has been offering translations to EQMM since 2005, primarily supplying locked-room mysteries from France, which he translates himself, and more recently providing adaptations of rough translations by non-native English speakers.  So far, twelve such stories have appeared in our Passport to Crime section, and two more are in the pipeline. In 2010, John started his own publishing company, Locked Room International, and began publishing his translations of the novels of Paul Halter, the author of several of EQMM’s Passport stories and a writer often described as the successor to John Dickson Carr.  Later, he began adding novel-length translations of other authors; he tells us he is currently working on a Swedish locked-room classic. Locked Room International has so far published eleven novels, plus an omnibus of the works of Derek Smith, which drew critical acclaim. The Crimson Fog, his translation of Halter’s Le Brouillard Rouge, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Mysteries of 2013. His next Paul Halter translation The Picture from the Past will be published later this year. In May 2012, John appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Miles Jupp in a Locked Room—a program exploring the type of mystery he loves. In the following post he discusses the current evolution of the form.—Janet Hutchings

I first read honkaku when I was in my teens, but I didn’t know it at the time, and it wasn’t called that then.

The book was John Dickson Carr’s He Who Whispers, one of the maestro’s most brilliant works, and I was hooked at once. I immediately bought as many of his secondhand paperbacks as I could find and afford. It was the first time I had read books that offered an intellectual challenge and an “aha” moment. They contained twisting plots, a surprising denouement and, in retrospect, fairly placed clues.

Such books are generally referred to as “Golden Age Detection,” which is a clumsy title because it refers not to the characteristics of the books themselves, but to a period of time. Nowadays, and in fact since the 1980s, there is a pithy word to describe the books: it is honkaku, which is a Japanese word meaningorthodox” or “authentic” (I prefer the former) in the sense of “fair play.” It came into being because of a revolt against the shakaiha or social school of crime fiction, which purports to reflect the nature of society and dominated Japanese detective fiction at the time.

Much of current Western crime fiction is either shakaiha or henkaku— which purports to reflect the mysteries of the human heart—or both, thus exploring both the state of society and the protagonists’ foibles, to the detriment of plots and clues. This, to my mind, is not detective fiction: It is fiction about detectives. Ruth Rendell and P.D. James are regarded as the modern “queens of detective fiction,” but they don’t write the way Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand did before them. I vividly recall reading a Henning Mankell book in which his detective seemed to spend most of his time obsessing about the number of times he urinated, but I don’t remember a single other thing about it. I think I fell asleep reading it. It was a bestseller in Europe, but was it detective fiction?

As Paul Halter, one of the few contemporary western writers specializing in honkaku, writes in 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death): “. . . the mystery novel becomes the vehicle for a social message or for pursuing humanitarian and philosophical issues. . . . In other words, they want to change the world. By the way, there’s never any suspense about the identity of the culprit: it’s always ‘society.’”

In Japan in the 1980s there was a rebellion against such writing, led by Soji Shimada (whose The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of the masterpieces of honkaku) and a group of younger authors. That they succeeded in transforming Japanese detective fiction is evident from the plethora of writers practising honkaku today, the impressive sales volumes, and the prevalence of honkaku in the mangas (those graphic novels where everyone seems to be spluttering or perspiring). Which means young adults and even children are reading stories that challenge their minds. Can that be a bad thing? I know I was enraptured by such stories once I discovered them. Is there any greater literary pleasure than the moment when all the puzzling elements suddenly click into place?

Why hasn’t a similar rebellion occurred in the Anglophone world? Well, there is a handful of writers, like Paul Harding, Bill Pronzini and, potentially, Christopher Fowler and John Verdon, writing honkaku, and there is the occasional foray into the subgenre by other writers, such as Lee Child’s Running Blind, John Sandford’s Night Prey, and Adrian McKinty’s recent In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, but the most successful attempt has undoubtedly been the BBC’s TV Series Jonathan Creek. According to David Renwick, its creator, it was “. . . born of a desire to create a detective series with a populist appeal which would concern itself with the intellectual puzzle behind a crime rather than the more sensationalist ingredients that were currently in vogue.” In its prime it was attracting over seven million viewers, nearly thirty percent of the potential British audience. Yet there was no apparent attempt by literary publishers to capitalize on that success. To understand why, you need to have listened to BBC Radio 4’s May, 2012 program Miles Jupp in a Locked Room and hear a publisher who actually appeared on the program claim there was “no market for that kind of stuff”! Which must have come as a surprise to the 500,000 people who tuned in.

I firmly believe there is a yearning for intellectual stimulation and the potential readership is there, but publishers are inhibited by the attitude of academics and the vast majority of crime-fiction reviewers, who treat honkaku with disdain, without understanding it. One notable exception is Michael Dirda, who captured the attitude perfectly in his recent review of Locked Room International’s The Derek Smith Omnibus:

“By contrast, detective stories—whodunits, cozies, Golden Age puzzles—are commonly dismissed as utterly artificial and old-fashioned, mere entertainments of the most inconsequential and embarrassing sort. Who, besides spinsters, tweedy academics, and devotees of Masterpiece Mystery and Malice Domestic would bother with them?”

He continued with this insightful passage:

“In fact, like other fixed forms, such as the sonnet and the pastoral, the detective story should be judged according to the beauty and elegance of its execution. The elements may be traditional—the isolated country house, the body in the library, the commedia dell’arte company of stock characters—but their ingenious and artful combination is what creates masterpieces . . . They test our skill as readers, employing every form of misdirection in their clueing, yet at their best leave us satisfied that, had we been a little shrewder, we might have grasped the truth before the final pages.”

Robert Barnard in his perceptive A Talent to Deceive explained why the critics who sneer at Agatha Christie for not developing depth of character fail to understand the craft behind writing a successful honkaku mystery: If you are going to set a logical puzzle for your readers, you cannot enter into a deep psychological profile of any of the potential suspects, or you will either give the game away or leave the reader with a feeling of having been cheated if the suspect acts out of character. Hence the mental jujitsu whereby Christie deliberately sketched out her characters in such a manner as to allow the reader to form his or her own (inevitably wrong!) psychological portrait. In other words, academics and most literary critics make a fundamental mistake by judging honkaku novels by the standards of henkaku and shakaiha. In fact, they are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

I for one am dedicated to expanding the public’s awareness and appreciation of honkaku. My small company Locked Room International (www.lockedroominternational.com or www.mylri.com) has been publishing my own translations of Paul Halter’s and other French writers’ mysteries since 2010 and I intend to expand its scope by republishing forgotten classics from French, English, Swedish, and other sources. I’m working with Shimada-san himself on an anthology of Japanese short stories and with another friend on an anthology of stories from all over the world. And I fully intend to continue submitting honkaku stories to EQMM in the future.

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5 Responses to “In Praise of Honkaku” (by John Pugmire)

  1. Keep up your courageous and valuable work… The ghosts of authors past~ and the spirits of those in a more enlightened future~ are smiling down upon you. 😉 -Robert Garni

  2. curtis evans says:

    Good piece! You would find a lot of support for your thesis in my Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (McFarland, 2012). Michael Dirda contributed an essay on John Dickson Carr and Doug Greene to Mysteries Unlocked (McFarland, 2014), the collection of essays in honor of Doug Greene, Carr’s biographer, that I edited.

    I think things are looking up in the world today for the classical mystery. Despite the comment of the publisher above, I think publishers are waking up to the fact that there is interest.


  4. sherlupin says:

    “(those graphic novels where everyone seems to be spluttering or perspiring)”
    that’s offensive for people who like manga, and you don’t seem to know a lot about this art to insult it like that

  5. Epiphany says:

    It’s always puzzled me as to why publishers think there’s “no market for this”. The best selling writer of all time wrote exclusively this stuff. Not to mention that the best-selling contemporary author J.K. Rowling’s series has a few that are arguably murder mysteries with the same intricate plotting.

    Publishers also have a habit of being spectacularly wrong about what will sell, including about Harry Potter…

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