It’s an open secret that I am deeply fascinated with Japanese mystery fiction. My passion for mystery fiction was fostered from a young age by (still genuinely fantastic) mystery video games like the Ace Attorney franchise. I was weened on the style and standard of plotting of shin-honkaku mysteries before I even knew what the term meant!
For a few years strong now, I’ve actually been studying Japanese with the explicit intention of becoming a professional translator of shin-honkaku mysteries — or, failing that, at least being able to read them myself. Over time, as I’ve collected novels to attempt to force my way through, my fascination with shin-honkaku mysteries has slowly become defined less by the translated novels I’ve already read, and more by the untranslated novels I will one day soon be able to read.
For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a few big discussion posts for my blog, since I haven’t done any big genre-spanning posts since On a Defense of Impossible Alibis and “Doylist” Impossibilites. These projects include a defense of modern pastiches of classical detectives in response to the negative pre-release reception of the new Marple anthology, a discussion on the genre of hybrid mysteries and why they’re an essential sub-style of mysteries to embrace, and a post on video games and why they’re uniquely capable of capturing the spirit of Golden Age Detection better than GAD itself — when done well, that is. These posts are eating up a lot of my time, and between them and school and reading Japanese novels, I haven’t had a lot of material to throw up on the blog lately! So, I decided to channel my languages studies into my blog and make this top ten list of every shin-honkaku mystery I desperately want to read, not only to remind myself of why I’m learning the language but to perhaps coax some of you into studying the language yourselves.
I set out to make this list with the following guidelines for myself:
- Entries may only be:
- short-story collections written by a single author or consistent group of authors
- individual short-stories
- I will not include anthologies written by multiple authors, but I may select individual stories from these anthologies — with one exception being if multiple authors contributed to a single holistic project, such as a round-robin novel in the style of The Floating Admiral.
- However, I may only pick one story from any given anthology.
- The intention of this post is to highlight the sheer creative variety of shin-honkaku mysteries. Therefore, stories with unconventional premises were prioritized over more well-known mysteries or mysteries by reputed authors. These may still appear, but I didn’t want to make a whole post just talking about untranslated works from famous authors already covered by Pushkin Vertigo or Locked-Room International.
- Furthermore, there is no works-per-author limit, but in accordance with this guideline I will prioritize authors with novel premises. The more traditional an author, the less likely you’ll see multiple books from them represented on this list.
- If a series is defined by a shared premise, only one book from that series may appear on the list.
- These works may not have translations in any capacity — this includes even bad translations by first-year Japanese students posted to Reddit. If it has an official or unofficial translation at all, it isn’t applicable, as the intention is to create motivation to study Japanese.
- Video games, television shows, comics, movies, radio shows, podcasts, musicals, plays, etc. are not applicable. There are many, many, many good mysteries in every medium, but I did not want to dilute this post. Video games are already getting their own post, anyway, as the medium deserves it.
- However, novel spin-offs of multimedia franchises are applicable. They must be original stories, and may not be adaptations of existing plots in the series.
- Synopses will be written from a combination of reviews and book descriptions. I may accidentally extrapolate incorrect details, but I will do my best to keep it to strictly what I know for a matter of fact.
And, one fair warning… I tried to find a lot of these on my own, but quite a few of these are inspired by my reading Ho-Ling no Jikenbo, the blog of Ho-Ling, preeminent translator of Japanese mysteries. Even the few I did manage to find on my own I later discovered were covered on Ho-Ling’s blog well before I got to them — the man’s got all of his bases covered! If any of these stories sound interesting you, or you want to read more about Japanese detection, absolutely do check out Ho-Ling’s fantastic and informative blog for reviews.
With that all out of the way, let’s get to the 12 shin-honkaku mysteries I’d kill to be able to read… And perhaps, so would you!
The Cinderella Castle Murder (シンデレラ城の殺人) by Konno Tenryū (紺野天龍)
First up is actually the novel I’m reading at this very moment, The Cinderella Castle Murder, a murder mystery reimagining of the ever-popular Cinderella fairytale. Reading Masahiro Imamura’s zombie apocalypse-infused locked-room mystery Death Among the Undead has awoken a deep fascination with Japan’s breadth of “hybrid mysteries” — mysteries that combine elements from non-mystery genres — so expect this to be a minor trend in this list.
The Cinderella fairytale is hijacked by a murder mystery! When Cinderella is locked-and-sealed inside of a room, whose sole entrance is guarded, with the Prince at his ball, there is no way he should’ve wound up dead… And yet, he does; murdered, in fact! Being the only person inside of a room that was locked in three difference ways means that Cinderella is immediately brought to court and tried for the murder…
With nobody to defend her, the fast-talking and sharp-tongued Cinderella is forced to represent herself as a defense attorney, picking apart contradictions in the seemingly airtight testimony of the array of quirky witnesses who all seem to know for a definitive fact that Cinderella is guilty! Worse yet, her magic will wear off at midnight, revealing her true identity, proving inconvenient not only for herself but also her evil stepmother and cruel step-sisters… So the race is on for Cinderella to prove herself innocent before midnight, not only for herself, but also for the people who don’t really deserve it…!
This novel’s structure of picking apart witness testimony in a fantastical court has earned comparisons to my pet mystery franchise Ace Attorney/Gyakuten Saiban, so that is immediately fascinating for me! Konno Tenryū is not a famous author in the slightest, but well-regarded by a few of my Japanese friends who have read their works as a writer of fantastic magic-infused mysteries — including Ho-Ling, whose blog brought my attention to this particular novel.
The Locked-Room of the Alchemist (錬金術師の密室) by Konno Tenryū (紺野天龍)
Another magic-infused hybrid locked-room mystery by Konno Tenryū!? It’s more likely than you think…
In a world where magic works as a science of give-and-take, spells instead functioning by transmuting physical matter, the renowned alchemist Ferdinand is murdered inside of his lab, which is locked behind three steel doors which themselves require the palm-prints of Ferdinand and key members of his organization to open. Not only is it almost unthinkable that a magical being like an alchemist, who can transform any matter within his grasp into a weapon, could be killed by someone un-magical… it’s further unthinkable that any random person could bypass all of these security precautions… Therefore, the blame is immediately placed on the shoulders of Theresa Paracelsus, the only remaining Alchemist in the organization and the only one capable of using her alchemy to commit this murder! Emilia, our protagonist, doesn’t believe Theresa could be the killer, and sets out to solve this murder that, if not committed by Theresa, is utterly impossible…
It’s must easier to see how magic plays into the plot of The Locked-Room of the Alchemist than The Cinderella Castle Murder, which instantly makes it sound so much more promising as a showcase of Japanese hybrid mysteries and the unique way in which fantasy can inform a brilliant murder plot… This is the first in a series of ongoing series, and the sequel sounds even more fascinating than this one!
Locked-Room Murder Game – The Fool’s Mate (密室殺人ゲーム王手飛車取り) by Utano Shōgo (歌野晶午)
A fringe community of online mystery fans have grown tired of their immense powers of deduction and intellect on fictional murders… and have turned to committing perfect crimes in the real world! Using masks and voice-changers, these real-world murder masterminds share details of their exploits, and challenge each other to solve their crimes in this locked-room mystery short story collection…
A community of murderers who challenge each other to solve their crimes sounds like a natural evolution of the format of the “armchair detective club” popularized in Miss Marple’s The Tuesday Club Murders. Using the internet as the medium for these stories is even more interesting. It’s unclear to me how much the internet really matters in these crimes, but given that I’ve heard the stories are semi-serialized, it’s possible that some cross-story misdirection could occur with these crimes and the internet overlapping…
This is the first of two-and-a-half novels in the series, and is deeply fascinating, if only daunting because its first story is the longest by a sizable amount…
The Adventures of Rintarō Norizuki (法月林太郎の冒険) by Rintarō Norizuki (法月林太郎)
Rintarō Norizuki is, as can be divined from his detective and himself sharing a name, a disciple of the Queenian school of mystery writing. The few Rintarō Norizuki short stories that have been published in English are utterly brilliant, so to see more of the Eastern Second Coming of Ellery Queen would be a dream!
Unfortunately, I know very little about the stories in this collection, but there’s some interesting titles including “The Cutting Monster”, “The Cannibal’s Puzzle”, and “The Death-Row Puzzle”. Fascinating stuff, and I’m only sad I can’t say more about this one!
There is a New Adventures of Rintarō Norizuki, which has much less evocative titles, but nonetheless I’d be interested in reading! It seems like Japanese mysteries favor locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes, so if nothing else I’d love to see more of Japan’s take on non-impossible puzzle mysteries!
The Murder of Alice (アリス殺し) by Kobayashi Yasumi (小林泰三)
Ari Kurisugawa is haunted by dreams of a surreal land ruled by a Queen of Hearts. She dreams of nothing but this Wonderland and going on adventures with White Rabbits and Mad Hatters. One day, though, she is shocked by a dream in which Humpty Dumpty has a great fall… only, it wasn’t an accident. This is greatly distressing, but it only gets worse when she awakes and discovers that a student in her school has similarly died by falling off of the roof of the faculty building!
Once the suspicion of murder arises and Ari becomes the prime suspect in both worlds, investigating the deaths reveal that Ari’s not the only one to dream of Wonderland. In fact, as it happens, these “dreams” are a very real, shared world in which her and multiple classmates have met each other in the form of avatars! When it’s discovered that not only do real people correspond to people in Wonderland, but so do the events of the murder, Ari/Alice teams up with intelligent Imori/dim-witted Bill the Lizard to solve this cross-worlds murder mystery and prove her innocence!
This is the third hybrid fantasy-mystery on this list in which a woman is falsely accused of murder and must prove herself innocent, but somehow in spite of the three stories having this basic similarity they all feel like three dramatically different tales when they’re all laid out. As you can tell, this mystery is a reimagining of the children’s story Alice in Wonderland and is the first in a series of novels that utilize the same premise with difference stories such as The Wizard of Oz or The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A mystery involving the interplay between two parallel stories set in different worlds is deeply fascinating, and the possibilities send my brain running!
“Whodunit Reception” (フーダニット・リセプション) by Morikawa Tomoki (森川智喜)
collected in Honkaku King 2022 (本格王２０２２)
Honkaku King is an annual best-of short story anthology series of all of the best detective stories published in a given year, as decided by members of the Honkaku Mystery Writers of Japan club. Ho-Ling’s review of this volume contained many fascinating stories, but the one that stood out the most to me was “Whodunit Reception” by Morikawa Tomoki.
The narrator and their friend accidentally destroy the unpublished manuscript for the last and final chapter of a mystery-story that is being serialized right now. In order to avoid getting into serious trouble, the two have to try and repair the manuscript. Fortunately, they’re able to save almost all of it… except for the parts of the story where the detective explains whodunit! By using the context clues of the surrounding text, the two have to fill in 17 blank spots to complete the story (keeping in mind, of course, that the only context they have is the final chapter and none of the rest of the novel).
This sounds like a puzzle/riddle-lover’s dream! I myself make it a rule to complete at least 10 puzzles a day purely for fun, so this bizarre little story in which the solution to a mystery story is itself the mystery story sounds compelling! A novel little meta-mystery I’d absolutely love to sit down with one of these days, with a fun concept, even if it’s not as far-out as some of the fantasy mysteries we’ve looked at! Every single other story in this anthology sounds fantastic though…
The Locked-Room Collector (密室蒐集家) by Ōyama Seīchirō (大山誠一郎)
My interest in this one has Ho-Ling’s fingerprints all over it. I first discovered Ōyama Seīchirō’s works through アリバイ崩し承ります (Alibi Cracking, At Your Service), a television drama adaptation of one the author’s other mystery collections of the same name. Alibi Cracking, At Your Service deals predominantly with “impossible alibi problems“, but other variations on alibi plots also appear, and the average quality of the episodes and tricks is quite high. Ho-Ling’s review of Alibi Cracking, At Your Service ended up directing me to his review of The Locked-Room Collector by the same author, and he speaks very highly of this one! The main defining quality of The Locked-Room Collector is that unlike the lateral thinking puzzle that many locked-room mysteries tend to be, all of the mysteries in this one are impossible crimes solved through pure Queenian chains of deduction.
While on a conceptual level this collection doesn’t seem all too interesting, I am previously acquainted with Ōyama Seīchirō’s work and already think highly of him as a plotter and can attest to his abilities!
Ace Attorney: Turnabout Airport (逆転裁判-逆転空港) by Mie Takase (高瀬美恵)
The Ace Attorney, with all of its bumps and warts, is my favorite mystery series ever. It is partially nostalgia, as this video game franchise is the thing that got me invested in Golden Age/(shin-)honkaku mysteries to begin with. But even then, going back and revisiting the series, where it works Ace Attorney has some of the absolute best-plotted mysteries ever written. The series’ gameplay cycle of being given testimony, and using evidence to find contradictions, explaining the contradictions, and then moving onto more testimony gives the reasoning an air of Queenian deduction chains. As a game series based entirely around the logic of statements vs evidence, the quality of cluing is quite high, and Ace Attorney boasts some of the most unique, imaginative clues I’ve ever seen in the genre! But this series is something special in Golden Age detection in a way that’s impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs, and deserves a post all to itself…
Truth be told, this entry is kind of cheat. I don’t care about Turnabout Airport specifically. The novel I’m more interested in is its immediate prequel, Turnabout Idol, but a fan has already translated the novel and posted it online, disqualifying it from this list… Nonetheless, Turnabout Airport is a standard Ace Attorney case, featuring defense attorney Phoenix Wright as he defends his subordinary Apollo Justice, who is accused of murdering a politician at an international airport! As a fan of the series who has been thirsted for fresh (good) content for nearly a decade now, these two novels are an oasis!
Word to the wise, the novels seem allergic to creating any more new characters than they absolutely have to, as both Turnabout Airport and Turnabout Idol feature exclusively recurring characters as defendants and prosecuting attorneys, which means the novels probably assume you have prior connection to these characters for the stories to work, so… Take this as my obligatory recommendation to go play Ace Attorney.
The 46th Locked-Room (４６番目の密室) by Arisugawa Arisu (有栖川有栖)
I promise it’s a coincidence that I’ve gone of a tour of all of the Queenian authors…
Arisugawa Arisu is another author in the “Ellery Queen”-school of mystery writing, but his series have a bit of an odd gimmick: there are two Alice series. The Student Alice series and the Writer Alice series. Both Student Alice and Writer Alice are different people, and each are detective novelists. Student Alice writes novels about Writer Alice, and Writer Alice writes novels about Student Alice, while the real world Arisu writes about both of these men writing about each other…
I’m not confused, you’re confused!
I don’t have any particular interest in specifically The 46th Locked-Room, but more broadly I am interested in all of the Writer Alice series. The Moai Island Puzzle, which was translated by Ho-Ling for Locked-Room International, is the second novel in the Student Alice series. The 46th Locked-Room is the first novel in the Writer Alice. My main interest with this novel is not in its plot, but merely to compare the two series side-to-side and hope to understand why there are two Alice franchises…
Makabe is a detective fiction author known as “The Japanese John Dickson Carr” due to his output of 45 locked-room mysteries. The 46th Locked-Room therefore refers to his final novel, as he has produced multiple mediocre mystery novels back-to-back and intends to soon expand beyond the confines of the detection genre. Only, of course, he winds up murdered in a locked room himself!
Admittedly, of all the stories on this list, this is the one I have the lowest expectations for. Every meta-mystery where detective novels are a plot point seem to have the same annoying quirk I complain about in my reviews of Death Invites You and The Honjin Murders: fake evidence is produced with no meaningful explanations just to muddy the waters for no better reason than it’s a mystery novel! We gotta! I’ve never liked this type of red herring, and it seems to be the territory of meta-mysteries like this… But, nonetheless, I go into it with an open mind!
“Amulet Hotel” (アミュレット・ホテル) by Hōjō Kie (方丈貴恵)
collected in Honkaku King 2021 (本格王２０２１)
We return to last year’s Honkaku King anthology, in which “Amulet Hotel” by Houjou Kie sounds the most promising, in no small part because of Ho-Ling’s review of the anthology… In fact, Ho-Ling’s summary of the story is brilliant, and knowing almost nothing of my story myself I couldn’t do better if I tried, so here’s an excerpt from his review:
When a guest of the Amulet Hotel’s annex complains that the door to his room can’t be opened and it turns out even the owner’s master key can’t open the door, they break the door down: the door had been blocked by a serving cart jammed beneath the door handle. Inside the room, they find a murdered man and an unconscious employee of the hotel. Normally, this is time to call the police, but not in the Amulet Hotel: the annex of the Amulet Hotel serves a very special kind of guest, the kind of guest who likes their privacy very much, who doesn’t like the police and who will make use of the special hotel services like having guns delivered to their rooms. Everyone is a criminal here, so whenever anything happens here, the Amulet Hotel will “clean up” themselves. But while the Amulet Hotel does cater to the criminals, there are still rules they expect their guests to obey to, and the most important one is that they should never ever inconvenience the hotel. Hotel detective Kiryuu is asked to figure out whether the unconscious employee in the hotel room killed the guest, or whether someone else did and if so, how the locked room was created and once they know what happened, they will deal with things properly.
Ho-Ling’s review is glowing and this mystery sounds utterly brilliant and conceptually novel! Every story sounds like quality goods, though!
RPG School (RPGスクール) by Hayasaka Yabusaka (早坂吝)
This is the first anything I ever tried to read in Japanese that wasn’t a news article or a social media post. I still haven’t actually committed to finishing it, so it’s on this list purely because I feel like it the first novel I’ve ever tried to read in Japanese means I should get around to finishing it sooner rather than later…
In a school where everything functions under the rules of fantasy role-playing video games like Dragon Quest, the Dark Lord has taken control of the school and filled it to the brim with monsters! Only, of course, with all of this chaos going on with needing to save the world from a great Godly evil, people have found the opportunity to commit impossible murders like the murder of a student in an un-tainted coat of snow.
This book is another hybrid mystery, and in this one the puzzle is informed by the fact the entire world operates under the rules of a video game! As someone who loves RPGs, seeing a murder mystery somehow be derived from the format is exciting and fascinating!
“When the Snow of Dried Leaves Melts” (かれ草の雪とけたれば) by Kaburagi Ren (鏑木連)
collected in New Orthodox Detective Special – Banquet of Impossible Crimes (新・本格推理 特別編―不可能犯罪の饗宴)
This is one I was really proud of discovering on my own, only to just now find out while trying to find a synopsis that, yes, Ho-Ling already covered it… Sigh… I was already interested in the story from the title alone, but Ho-Ling’s review puts it over the top.
“When the Snow of Dried Leaves Melts” is an impossible crime story (one of many in this anthology) in which a man is murdered on the fourth floor of a real world government building. The only way out of the room was a ladder, which a man was climbing down and soon apprehended from. Naturally, his guilt is debated, therefore the question of how someone can commit this impossible murder comes into play, especially when this suspect helped create the impossibility himself…
Admittedly the premise sounds pretty standard for what the title was offering, but I’m actually glad Ho-Ling covered this one because it let me write this synopsis at all. His review is that the story is simultaneously brilliant and also bullshit, so I’m sure I’m in for a hell of a ride!
And there we have it, the 12 shin-honkaku stories I’d kill to read! I tried to capture a wide variety of stories, form, and genre without relying too much on just mentioning the big names, and I think I’ve done a fairly good job at creating a to-read list of Japanese detective stories, for myself and hopefully other would-be students of the language!
Already, I was fascinated with Japanese mysteries, but the more I learn the language and therefore the more I become acquainted with shin-honkaku mysteries the more deeply my fascination runs! I can only study day-in-day-out and hope one day I can become fluent enough to read all of these brilliant-sounding mysteries!