The Japanese are unbeatable regarding food, anime, culture, technology, and entertainment, so it is no surprise that the books by Japanese authors are some of the best in the literary world, especially their murder mysteries. Japanese mysteries have the traditional or orthodox style (honkaku) and the non–orthodox style (shin honkaku) of writing.
Best Japanese Murder Mystery Books!
The honkaku subgenre is followed by most classical Japanese mystery writers, and in the 1980s, new writers emerged who followed a more non-traditional approach in their books. This article includes a list of books that are a mix of both these writing styles, so if you are unsure where to start your Japanese mystery novel journey, look no further.
1. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Translator: Alexander O. Smith)
The Devotion of Suspect X is highly acclaimed and has won many awards, including the prestigious Honkaku Mystery Award, and rightfully so. This book got me into the Japanese mystery scene, and there was no turning back. The story follows the lives of two neighbors, Yasuko Hanaoka, a divorced single mother living with her teenage daughter, and Tetsuya Ishigami, a brilliant mathematics teacher secretly in love with Yasuko. Their lives do not intersect except for the neighborly interactions until one day, when Yasuko kills her abusive ex-husband in self-defense.
Ishigami discovers the murder and decides to help the mother and daughter duo from getting arrested by covering it up with a deviously intelligent scheme. This outwardly open-and-shut case becomes complicated when someone from Ishigami’s past is introduced to the scene. A battle of wits between two old friends ensues until the climax, revealing what lengths someone can go to to help the person they love.
This is a fast-paced thriller filled with many nail-biting sequences, and the reader will find themselves rooting for the enigmatic Ishigami despite knowing what he is capable of. This book is one of the top Mystery novels of all time and has catapulted the author to fame outside of Japan. This book has numerous film adaptations, including two Indian movies, a Tamil movie called Kollaigaran and an upcoming Bollywood movie called Jaane Jaan. You can get the book here! 📖
2. Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (Translator: Louise Heal Kawai)
Detective Kosuke Kindaichi is back with another mystery loosely inspired by the Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. This book is also set on an island, the titular Gokumon Island, and as the title suggests, there are deaths galore. Kindaichi has a reason to go to Gokumon Island– first, to give the islanders the message that his friend and fellow soldier, a son of one of the most influential families on the island, has died, and second, to help protect the three step-sisters of his dead friend from getting murdered.
Despite his presence, he cannot stop murders from being committed, and now he has to find who the murderer is before they end up killing more people. His task is anything but simple, and he finds himself in mortal danger at the hands of the unknown killer. This book is another excellent installment in the Detective Kosuke Kindaichi series; it has everything a murder mystery requires– a remote island with a dark history, homicidal maniacs, an eerie atmosphere, and an unassuming detective who redeems himself at the showdown. Seishi Yokomizo is one of the most prolific and renowned Japanese mystery writers, and he also has a literary award named in his honor. If you have not read any of his books yet, you will not go amiss with this book. You can get the book here! 📖
3. The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (Translator: Alison Watts)
This book is probably one of the best examples of the Shin Honkaku or the new orthodox writing style and includes three converging storylines that do not follow a linear approach. Inspired by the real-life mass poisoning case known as the Teigin Incident, this book focuses on the mass poisoning of the Aosawa family during one of their parties. Seventeen people died due to this incident, leaving behind just two survivors– the housekeeper and Hisako Aosawa, the only member of the Aosawa family to survive.
She is the enigmatic, charming, blind daughter of the family, but that does not stop suspicion from falling upon her. The situation is exacerbated when Makiko Saigo, Hisako’s childhood friend and neighbor and one of the first people to notice the massacre, writes and publishes a book called The Forgotten Festival inspired by the gruesome event. Decades later, an unknown narrator is interviewing everyone connected to the event to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Their journey is mired with ghosts from the past and incidents in the present. They realize someone does not want the truth to come out and can go to any lengths to stop them. The plot creeps up on you. It starts straightforwardly, but the intensity and the complexity increase subtly with every passing chapter before leading the readers to a climax that renders them spellbound by its ambiguity. You can get the book here! 📖
4. Out by Natsuo Kirino (Translator: Stephen Snyder)
This book follows a similar premise to The Devotion of Suspect X. In that, an abused housewife kills her abusive, philandering husband and is then aided by her friends in disposing of the dead body and setting up an alibi; that is where the similarity ends. Four co-workers who work the night shift at a Bento factory find themselves knee-deep in the gristly world of murder and crime. One of the four women, Masako, rises to the occasion to become a ringleader and help them escape this incident almost unscathed.
Elsewhere, a former criminal gets tangled in this case, leading to a cat-and-mouse chase and a battle of wills. Gruesome, intense, and thrilling are some words that can be attributed to this novel. The author, and by extension, the translator, has a knack for writing in a way that makes the scenes play out like a movie in our mind’s eye. A word of caution before reading this book: It is not for the squeamish and the faint-hearted, as there are prolonged scenes showcasing graphic descriptions concerning the disposal of dead bodies; therefore, you have been warned! You can get the book here! 📖
5. Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada (Translator: Louis Heal Kawai)
There is a trend of weird, large mansions in out-of-the-way places and their equally weird (read: eccentric) owners in these Japanese mystery novels. Soji Shimada’s novel is a follower of this trend. A remote location in the northern parts of Japan and a crooked house become the scene where a string of murders are committed. The wealthy owner of the crooked house, Kozaburo Hamamoto, and his daughter are getting ready to host their guests for their annual Christmas party. What they did not expect to host was a live-action murder mystery with a murderer amidst them.
The house and its peculiar design are as intriguing and mysterious as its deaths. Kiyoshi Mitarai, an amateur sleuth, enters the scene to figure out the mystery behind the murderers and unmask the murderer. Will he succeed in his task? And what is the reason behind the building’s curious design? Read the book to find out. I enjoyed the numerous house plan diagrams, which helped to envision the house better, as they served as important clues to help the readers figure out how the crimes were committed. You can get the book here! 📖
6. The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa (Translator: Simon Grove)
A lady killer has a reputation for being a serial seducer of women. What if someone took the words literally and decided to kill ladies? This book deals with both the definitions of lady killer– the romantic kind and the murdering kind. The novel’s Lady Killer is your typical casanova, replete with a huntsman book filled with details of his prey- the women he romances. He is also a married man who leads a double life, one in front of his wife and the other in front of his flings.
Someone out there seems to be targeting the Lady Killer, too, as his conquests turn up murdered, and suspicion lands on him. Now, the hunter finds what it is to be on the other side of the hunt and have someone mark him as their prey. Is he truly the killer, or is there someone out there killing women using his name for their twisted revenge? Despite its initial meandering pace, once the plot reaches the thrilling parts, it picks up the pace and does not stop anywhere until the bombshell of a climax. You can get the book here! 📖
7. Penance by Kanae Minato (Translator: Philip Gabriel)
Kanae Minato is an author who subverts regular tropes and literary devices in the mystery genre. Her matter-of-fact writing style, especially when dealing with macabre subjects like murder, makes it all the more hard-hitting. The novel is narrated from the perspectives of five women, four childhood friends who were witnesses to the murder of their classmate, and the murdered child’s mother. The mother of the murdered girls curses the surviving girls, thereby traumatizing them further, and vows to take revenge on them if they do not find the killer before the statute of limitations ends (fifteen years).
The four girls grow up with the shadow of the threat looming in the background. The way this threat has caused their lives to derail is expressed in each chapter of the book. Though it is a murder mystery book, discovering the killer’s identity does not take center stage. Instead, the main focus is on how each girl deals with the curse’s effects. This is another slow burn, but as is her style, Minato throws a curve ball in the climax that is deserving of her status as one of the best award-winning mystery novelists in Japan. You can get the book here! 📖
8. A Quiet Place by Seichō Matsumoto (Translator: Louise Heal Kawai)
Seichō Matsumoto is one of the best-known, prolific Japanese authors credited with popularizing detective fiction. His books are well-known within and outside Japan’s borders. His books are famous for their curious blend of showcasing the diverse human psychology in contrast to everyday life. In this novel, Tsuneo Asai, a rules-abiding Government employee, receives news of his wife’s death during a business trip. Though his wife’s death was due to natural reasons, the circumstances surrounding her death perplex him.
He investigates his wife’s movements before her death, and the discovery shocks him. The rest that follows is how a government bureaucrat who lives by the book becomes a person intent on revenge. The way the author depicts the changing psyche of a man to show how he goes from being a straight-laced rules follower to a master of deception is astounding. This novel is short but still packs a punch. It is a worthwhile choice for anyone who requires suggestions about which of the author’s books to read first. You can get the book here! 📖
9. The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi (Translator: Sadako Mizuguchi)
Akimitsu Takagi is another famous Japanese classic mystery novelist. In this book, he tackles the issue of industrial espionage. Shigeo Sagawa loses his lucrative job as a trader during a stock market crash and then chances upon an offer to work as an industrial spy. The fact that he has to spy on his childhood friend/ romantic rival cinches the deal for him. While on the case, he starts an affair with his former lover, the wife of the man he is currently spying on, because when you’re committing one wrong, you might as well do more.
One day, his friend is murdered immediately after an altercation with him. Naturally, suspicion falls on Shigeo, but a well-wisher saves him. But soon, more murders are committed in his vicinity, making it harder for him to escape. Luckily for Shigeo, Saburo Kirishima (one of Takagi’s literary detectives) is on the case, and he takes it upon himself to uncover the truth. Is Shigeo a killer, or is someone intent on framing him as a murderer? These questions form the central conflict of this intensely thrilling mystery. You can get the book here! 📖
10. The Mill House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (Translator: Ho-Ling Wong)
This is another one of those books where the murder centers around a bizarre house. Ayatsuji has a vast repertoire surrounding these weird mansion books, and this book is a part of the collection. His house murder books follow the locked-room mystery trope. The house in this book is designed to look like an English manor with mill wheels powering it, hence the name. The manor’s owner is a wealthy man who wears a mask to hide his face that has been disfigured by an accident.
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Exactly a year before the present-day part of the book, there was a series of murders, a theft, and a mysterious disappearance. In the present, the same cast of people present the previous year appear, minus the dead ones (obviously!). A new member, the sleuth Kiyoshi Shimada, arrives on the scene to discover the truth. Someone does not want the truth to come out and will go to any lengths to keep it hidden, including murder. Locked-room mysteries centered around the peculiar design of a house are one of the best tropes in murder mysteries, and this book proves that the author is an expert in it. You can get the book here! 📖
This list features the creme-de-la-creme of the Japanese mystery novel world. Be it honkaku or shin honkaku, each one of these authors prove that they are masters at their game and are well deserving of the awards and acclaim they have received. Once you have gone through this list, explore more books by these authors. I am not being biased when I say that they are the best!
An architect who loves to write. Her favorite past-time fluctuates between reading books and writing about what she reads. Her favorite habitats are libraries, bookstores, and old buildings, in that order. She dreams of becoming an author one day, provided she gets over a pesky affliction called procrastination.