WALL STREET JOURNAL
“The Aosawa Murders”, written by Riku Onda and translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts, concerns a horrific event in an unnamed Japanese town. In the 1970s, 17 people who had gathered for a celebration at the home of a prominent local family were killed by cyanide-laced drinks. The mass murder was “a scene from hell,” in the words of one witness. An investigating police inspector judges it an act of “enormous, indifferent malice” beyond the realm of human understanding.
Yet of course attempts were made to understand or at least solve the case, which is examined from a number of viewpoints and time frames in this complex and involving text. There are excerpts from interviews with people close to the event; sections from a bestselling book by a woman acquainted with the victims; and portions of a second manuscript by another writer responding to the previous book: “a non-fiction work about a work of non-fiction.”
Central in both written accounts is one of the crime’s two survivors: the beautiful, blind teenage daughter in the victimized family—a young person “adored” and “respected” but also somewhat eerie in affect. Also scrutinized is the most plausible perpetrator: the emotionally fragile young man who delivered the poisoned beverages and whose prior quest for spiritual enlightenment is presented in fable-like prose that recalls Nietzsche or Kahlil Gibran.
Ms. Onda’s novel—part psychological thriller, part murder mystery—is audacious in conception and brilliant in execution.
Riku Onda is a prizewinning author in her native Japan. The Aosawa Murders, the first of her novels to be translated into English, concerns a mass poisoning at a party to celebrate the birthday of three members of a well-to-do family in 1973.
The incident is seen from the viewpoint of numerous characters: the author of a book about the 17 deaths, the housekeeper, the detective and the sole survivor, a little blind girl. Each version adds a piece to a mystifying mosaic that questions the nature of truth and fate. The hot and humid atmosphere of the coastal town almost becomes a character in itself. The fascinating result is rich and strange, utterly absorbing. Onda makes you aware of “another, different world below the surface of this one”.
PW STARRED REVIEW
An enigmatic and haunting crime novel.
Japanese author Onda makes her English-language debut with an enigmatic and haunting crime novel. In 1973, 17 people die at the Aosawa villa on the Sea of Japan in the city of K—, including members of three generations of the Aosawa family, after drinking spirits and soft drinks that were delivered to the house as a gift. The massive police inquiry settles on the delivery man as the culprit. He later hangs himself and leaves behind a note confessing to the mass poisoning, which he carried out after he got a “notice that he had to kill the Aosawa family.” In 2003, Makiko Saiga, who was a neighbor of the Aosawas and the author of a book about the murders, talks to an unidentified interviewer. That’s followed by testimony from other people with a link to the case, including the police detective obsessed with it. Onda’s unusual narrative technique, which presents differing perspectives by giving only the responses to the interviewer’s questions, enhances the nesting-doll plot. American readers will appreciate why this puzzle mystery won the annual Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Fiction. (Feb.)
In a Thicket: PW Talks with Riku Onda, interview by Lenny Picker | Dec 20, 2019
Where did the idea for the book come from? I have been a big fan of Michel Petrucciani ever since student days, and always captivated in particular by his song “Eugenia.” It inspired me to write a poem. Then, some years later, when I was thinking about what kind of story the poem could be part of, I decided it had to be a complicated intrigue of life and death, and probably set in a town by the sea somewhere in the Hokuriku region, where I had lived as a child.
What did having the story unfold as answers to an unseen interviewer’s questions allow you to do that you couldn’t have otherwise? I was attempting to write a novel that gradually made the reader feel more and more uncertain, and responding to an unseen interviewer was effective for drawing out that feeling of unease, I believe. I wanted to write about a grey zone that can’t be expressed in a dualistic discourse of good or evil, friend or foe, and thought that this technique would make readers feel the sense of ambiguity and lack of definitiveness.
Many readers will associate the format, with different characters giving different perspectives and memories of the events surrounding the murders, with the film Rashomon. Was that an influence? “In a thicket” is the phrase used in Japan for a Rashomon-type situation, meaning that something is hidden or mysterious. I like this kind of story very much, so I’m sure I was conscious of it at some level.
Why did you quit your job to try writing a novel? The usual route to becoming a novelist in Japan is to enter competitions. I had wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but I also had an image of a writer as someone with experience in society, who has studied writing, and reached a certain age. However, when Ken’ichi Sakemi, who was only a year older than me, made his debut at 25 with a fascinating and highly accomplished novel, I realized it was okay for me to start, too.
Is it harder to write a mystery than a nongenre novel, such as your recent book about a piano competition? Different genres necessitate using different parts of the brain, so it’s not a question of one being easier than another. All are hard work. Writing mysteries requires coming up with an engaging puzzle and constructing the process for solving that puzzle with narrative consistency. Logical thinking is my weak point though, so perhaps the genre is a difficult one for me.
KIRKUS STARRED REVIEW:
A bizarre murder in 1970s Japan continues to reverberate through the decades. This book, originally published in 2005 under the title Eugenia, is the first by Onda to be translated into English. After opening with a short, unusually lyrical excerpt from the transcript of a police interview, the book unfolds through chapters told from strikingly different perspectives. The first narrator is Makiko Saiga, who wrote a book about the crime in question, the poisoning of 17 people at a birthday party at the Aosawa family estate. Looking back on the murders 30 years later, Saiga, who was a child at the time, remembers it was a humid summer in a beautiful setting by the sea. Then, several months after the crime, a man who didn't seem to have any connection to the Aosawas wrote up a confession and then hanged himself. Though skeptical, the police took the opportunity to close the case. Saiga went on to research and publish The Forgotten Festival, her only book, about the crime. As she winds up her story, she implies that Hisako, the blind young Aosawa heiress and the only survivor of the massacre, might have been the killer. "You see, it's a very simple story. If there are ten people in a house and nine die, who is the culprit?" The next narrator is Saiga's assistant, who's highly suspicious of her boss's motives. An excerpt from The Forgotten Festival follows a thinly veiled dramatization in which Saiga places her younger self at the scene of the crime and implicates a man she sees as the messenger of death. Subsequent sections focus on the housekeeper's daughter, the detective, Saiga's older brother, and others on the way to the surprising conclusion. The domino effect of the murder on the community and the nation, as well as the swirl of uncertainty concerning the way its narratives are shaped, gives the book a striking resonance. This dark and dazzling novel defies easy categorization but consistently tantalizes and surprises.
The Aosawa Murders (translated by Alison Watts, Bitter Lemon, £8.99) also deals with the aftermath of a crime: here, it’s the poisoning of 17 people, including children, during a family party in 70s Japan. The case is closed when the delivery man who brought the cyanide-laced alcohol and soft drinks to the house kills himself, leaving an apparently incriminating note, but Inspector Teru is convinced that he knows the identity of the real culprit. So, apparently, does neighbour Makiko Saiga, who writes a bestselling book about the case, though the “clues” in her narrative are somewhat oblique. We hear from these two and various others, including the sole surviving member of the Aosawa family, mysterious Hisako, 30 years after the murder. Tantalising as a scene glimpsed through a half-open door, this is an utterly immersive puzzler in which nothing is entirely cut and dried.
MYSTERY SCENE MAGAZINE:
Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (Bitter Lemon Press, $14.95 tpb) is one of the best books in any genre I’ve read all year. Set in a fictional Japanese city, it follows the aftermath of a mass poisoning that totaled 17 deaths, nearly wiping out the entire Aosawa family. The police believe they have their killer when a young deliveryman commits suicide, leaving behind a mysterious note that appears to confess to the slaying. The note does not, however, reveal his motive. Eleven years later, Makiko Shiga, who had been one of the children who discovered the bodies of the slain Aosawas, has written The Forgotten Festival. She has always believed that her friends and playmates were killed by someone else, not the deliveryman, and her book is her attempt to bring about true justice. When The Forgotten Festival becomes a bestseller, people who had known the wealthy Aosawas (the physician father ran a medical clinic attached to the residence), start opening up to the young author, sharing their memories of that horrifying day. Among them is beautiful and blind Hisako, the sole Aosawa to survive the massacre. To a certain extent, Makiko suspects Hisako, but can’t figure out how the blind girl could have pulled off such a horrendous crime unaided. And besides, Hisako seems eager enough to tell of her own memories of the event, and they are heart-wrenching.
There are many different voices in this extraordinary book. There are Makiko’s and her brother Junji’s recollections, both as children and later as adults; the voice of Detective Teru, who has his own doubts about the deliveryman’s guilt; the tobacconist, who believes a woman had to have been behind the crime; and even the daughter of the housekeeper who was originally blamed for the deaths. In the end, everyone has a theory, but which theory comes closest to the truth? At one point, the frustrated Makiko muses, “Truth is nothing more than a subject seen from a certain perspective.” In other words, “truth” is entirely subjective. But there are 17 dead Aosawas, and death is not simply a perspective —it is real. The Aosawa Murders won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Fiction and was hailed as a masterpiece. I agree. Although there are many different characters in this book, and it slides from voice to voice, from the murky past to the vivid present, from the fog-draped countryside to a crowded city, there is an organic whole here which is breathtaking. Author Onda’s masterpiece is so filled with observations on the human condition that smitten readers might be tempted to tear out and frame certain pages —or at least copy them down. My favorite was, “There are two different kinds of people in this world, I believe, those who frequent bookshops and those who do not.”
17 people die of poisoning in a town on the Sea of Japan in the 1970s during a celebration held by a locally prominent family of doctors.
The seemingly motiveless, and almost uniquely shocking, crime is solved after a fashion when a suicide note seems to include a claim of responsibility. But even decades later, Inspector Teru is not the only person unsatisfied by the official verdict. Nor is he alone in looking closely at the one member of the Aosawa family to survive the massacre. Told in the voices of various characters, through diaries, letters, reports and transcripts, this is a chilling and transfixing story.
CRIME FICTION LOVER:
At the heart of The Aosawa Murders is a puzzle – who could have poisoned 17 people at a gathering at a house belonging to the Aosawa family, and who could have had a motive to murder the family of a prominent local doctor and all their houseguests? These questions have been plaguing Makiko Saiga, to the point where she set out to write a book about the murders. This book, entitled The Forgotten Festival, was met with a mixture of fascination and repulsion when it was released 11 years after the incident; fascination due to the subject matter, revulsion due to the title. To call the murder of 17 people a ‘festival’ was seen as downright heartless.
This all comes out not in a straightforward narrative, but in a series of monologues by a variety of characters, mainly told years after the events. We learn that Makiko was a close friend of the Aosawas, one of several children to attend the party in question. We learn that she saw an unfamiliar young man in a yellow raincoat and a motorcycle helmet delivering soft drinks and sake to the gathering at the Aosawa address. We learn that all those who drank from these bottles instantly became ill, all but one dying, and we learn that the Aosawas’ daughter, Hisako, did not touch any of the bottles and managed to survive. Hisako, who sat in an armchair in the sitting room as the drinks were consumed, would have been the ideal witness, except for the fact that she was blind.
There’s also something about Hisako that leads both the police and Makiko to believe that she had something to do with the murders. They can’t quite put their finger on it, but there’s something different about Hisako, a strange distance that no one can explain. Despite a lack of evidence connecting her to the crime, most of the town seems to think she had something to do with it too. Even when the young man responsible for the murders turns up dead in his apartment, his suicide note containing his confession, there’s still suspicion that Hisako had something to do with the deaths. It’s this suspicion that causes Hisako to flee Japan, a fact which in Japan means the statute of limitations is put on hold.
Makiko’s assistant who helped her transcribe the interviews for the original book will not let the matter rest, and heads to the small provincial city where the murders took place to repeat the interview process. While he’s there, this unnamed narrator (simply called The Assistant) quickly finds things that didn’t add up in Makiko’s account, and things that she didn’t tell him the first time around. As he digs deeper and interviews more people, he finds that there’s much more to the story than Makiko first suggested.
This form of novel, in which a series of different narratives come together to form one central picture, much like pieces in a puzzle, is a form that works particularly well in a Japanese context. The Dark Maidens is another such novel, as is The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. This may be because of how much is left vague and unsaid in Japanese discourse, and how social mores and polite hypocrisy create a distance between people.
The Aosawa Murders may not have the neat ending that readers may expect, however the complex plotting and twisted conclusion could not be any other way. When it was first published The Aosawa Murders won the 59th Mystery Writers Japan Award for Best Novel, and it’s a deserved winner, and a great addition to the growing ranks of Japanese crime fiction in English translation.
CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE LITERATURE:
In 1973, in a small seaside town on the west coast of Japan, the prominent Aosawa family and their guests were poisoned with cyanide during a birthday party, an incident resulting in the death of seventeen people. Makiko Saiga, who was a child at the time, later interviewed people connected to the family for her senior thesis, which ended up becoming a true-crime bestseller titled The Forgotten Festival. Makiko never published another book and refused to give interviews, and the sole survivor of the Aosawa family, a young woman named Hisako, married and moved to the United States. When the young man who delivered the poisoned alcohol to the party committed suicide, the police closed the case.
Thirty years after the incident, however, it has become apparent that there may be more to the story. There are fourteen chapters in The Aosawa Murders, each narrated from the perspective of someone once connected with the Aosawa family or the publication of The Forgotten Festival. Makiko Saiga is polite yet evasive, her research assistant knows that there are small departures from reality in her account but doesn’t know what to make of them, the detective who investigated the case is convinced that Hisako Aosawa is responsible for the murders but can’t quite prove it, while someone who knew the supposed culprit believes the young man was used by a mysterious woman. A handful of other people, such as Makiko’s brother and the daughter of the housekeeper of the Aosawa family, offer additional intriguing anecdotes.
The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn. For the first two-thirds of the novel, the reader has no choice but to take each separate account as it comes while trying to pick out the connecting threads, which initially seem to be few and far between. The Aosawa Murders respects the intelligence of its reader by presenting information impartially without cliffhangers, false leads, or red herrings. The circumstances surrounding the mystery are compelling enough to warrant sustained attention, but the narrative pace allows the reader to take time with each account without being driven to rush forward.
When things start to come together in the last hundred pages, the true brilliance of the story becomes apparent. The final two chapters focus on Hisako Aosawa (now Hisako Schmidt) and Makiko Saiga, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with them both. After hearing so much about them from secondhand accounts, the down-to-earth reality of their actual personalities was refreshing. Regardless of what each of them may or may not have done, the author reminds us that both of these women are far more than archetypes in someone else’s story.
Although an astute reader will have formed several theories about what happened, the novel never presents a simple and neatly packaged explanation. The ending is fragmented and recounted in a jarring manner that serves as one of the strongest clues concerning the identity of the narrator who has presumably assembled the accounts that appear in the story. I can imagine that some people may find this sort of open-ended conclusion anticlimactic, but it was extremely satisfying to me.
I have to admit that I enjoy formulaic murder mysteries in which everything is carefully arranged and fits together perfectly at the end. The Aosawa Murders is not that type of story, however – not by a long shot. Instead, the novel is a sprawling puzzle that rewards the reader’s active attention and engagement. This is not a book that can be read in an afternoon, but the strength of the writing and the quality of the translation encourage sustained reflection and speculation. I had an enormous amount of fun with The Aosawa Murders, and I would happily recommend it to anyone looking for an uncommon mystery written by a mature and confident storyteller.
To anyone concerned about such things, there is no overt violence, sexism, or misogyny in The Aosawa Murders. In addition, aside from a minor subplot involving a Buddhist priest, the story doesn’t contain any particularly “Japanese” elements, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Japanese society or police procedure in order to fully appreciate the characters and plot. In fact, I think The Aosawa Murders would make an excellent addition to a reading list of contemporary international mystery writers.
A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Bitter Lemon Press. The quality of the publication is excellent, and I’m thrilled and delighted that Riku Onda’s work has been able to make such a stunning debut in English translation.
30 years ago. in 1973, three generations of the same family, the Aosawas, were murdered in their home. It was on a hot summer’s day and it was also an auspicious date. The father, grandmother and grandson were all celebrating their birthdays on the same date. In all the excitement, no one noticed the driver who delivered sake and soft drinks laced with cyanide. But soon 17 members of the family were dead with only one survivor; a daughter, Hidako who lost her sight as a young girl.
The deliveryman was soon seen as the prime suspect but committed suicide soon after. It appears a cut-and-dry case for some. But there are those in the community who still harbour suspicions about the surviving family member and also others who want it forgotten. Teru, the detective on the case, has always believed that the driver had an accomplice. Someone closer to home.
Now in 2013, the infamous Aosawa house with its unusual round windows, a local landmark, is to be demolished and Hidako’s sight has been restored. But the murders still reverberate. The family had been prominent in the community as they owned a large hospital and were both liked and resented in equal measure.
The book is told in a series of interviews with people connected with the case, Makiko Saiga, the author of a book about the case called it ‘The Forgotten Festival’ written 11 years after the event. It highlighted her assistant, a Buddhist monk who knew the main suspect and Junji, a young visitor to the house on the day of the murders. He discovered that a can of Coca-Cola contained more than it promised - but told no-one.
As the interviews progress, disturbing elements of the case reappear. Someone remembers a mysterious phone-call from a young girl who wanted to know if the murders had happened, the significance of the one chair that wasn’t out of place, and the assertion by Makiko’s assistant that her book (the only one that she ever wrote), was a message to someone. Although the case seemed to have been solved, the deliveryman had no connection to the Aosawas - but had a history of mental illness. So why did he choose them?
But throughout the theories and comments on the case, Hidako appears alternately cast as both victim and perpetrator. The book begins with her being formally interviewed. She emerges from the interviewees' viewpoints as a powerful and also feared character despite her disability. But why is she haunted by a blue room and a white crepe Myrtle flower?
The intricate plotting with its small details is slowly and carefully revealed, as the unfolding of a plant’s petals. Indeed, it emphasises the significance of flowers and cranes within Japanese culture. The detective on the case produces many origami figures of cranes.
Someone got away with murder in 1973 and, 30 years later, they are still tying up loose ends. The notorious Aosawa house is to be demolished despite local opposition and Makiko is found dead in a local park apparently from heatstroke. The motive for the murders is merely hinted at towards the end and there is a dreamlike quality to the writing as the 2013 events also take place against a sweltering Japanese summer.
It’s always intriguing to read a crime novel told from a different cultural perspective and this comes from a Japanese viewpoint. It’s a formal society that is reflected in the characters' speech pattern, and how they impart information from their recollections. The Aosawa Murders was an interesting challenge as the reader has to piece together events from several different viewpoints and decide which are insignificant or otherwise. I found the book fascinating as, although it’s a slow burner compared to others, it drew me in with its atmosphere and the way in which the story was told. The characters knew who the murderer was, but did not feel able to come out and state it openly due to social constraints.
The reader is invited to make their own deductions as they put the pieces of the jigsaw together, making the book more of a mystery than a puzzle.
I enjoyed following the trail of clues through the interviews as each one was revealed gradually and the significance of each became apparent when they began to form a whole. I had the impression that, in Japanese society, things are not expressed openly and so peoples’ suspicions are hinted at in a complex language of symbols. In fact, I expect to re-read the book in order to find out if there are any clues that I missed.
Although a well-known writer in Japan, this is the author’s first crime novel and her first to be translated into English. I hope that there will be others to follow.
Translated by Alison Watts
Mrs PEABODY INVESTIGATES:
The minute I saw this ravishing book cover, I wanted a copy. And – oh happy day – it’s turned out to be one of my most satisfying crime reads of the year.
Opening line: What do you remember?
The Aosawa Murders is a fascinating exploration of a crime: the poisoning of seventeen people at a big family birthday party in 1970s Japan. The case was supposedly solved by the police, but as the novel immediately shows, a number of people have doubts that the truth was properly established – including the lead investigator. In particular, the enigmatic figure of Hisako, the blind daughter and sole family member to survive, is the focus of much scrutiny and speculation.
I loved this novel’s originality, intelligence and verve. Readers are invited to glean new clues about the murders from interviews carried out by an anonymous individual – a kind of Rashomon homage that sifts the memories of those close to the crime, such as local kids who visited the family home, the housekeeper’s daughter, the prime suspect’s neighbour, and the detective in charge of the case. One of these interviewees is Makiko Saiga, who wrote a bestselling book on the crime eleven years after it happened, and who reports on the interviews she carried out back then, creating a kind of Chinese-box narrative on three different time levels (the 1970s,1980s, 2000s). As we move through the novel, more and more details about what people knew are revealed, along with the toll the crime has taken on them personally. Beautifully written and translated, with great characterization and sense of place, I was hooked from the first to the last page.
NY Journal of Books
“The genius of this novel is that it cultivates a nonstop air of menace. Practically every character comes off like a potential murderer.”
The town at the heart of Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders is the perfect place for a crime. Somewhere between sleepy and practically dead, the Japanese city of K— is somewhat enchanted thanks to both the immeasurable heat and the neverending sounds of the sea. Human events have also had an impact on K—, especially the 1973 mass poisoning of the Aosawa family.
This crime forms the center of this sprawling narrative, or rather, narratives. The massacre of the Aosawa family is told and re-told from the perspective of several different characters, including many who are never named. Onda takes her time in dissecting not only these people and their lives after the murders, but also how this one gruesome crime led to several subsequent deaths and tragedies.
Much like Friedrich Durrenmatt’s black satire, The Pledge, The Aosawa Murders invokes all of the tropes of detective fiction only to infuriate them and reader expectations. For instance, the detective in this novel believes in his bones that Hisako Aosawa, the blind and pampered lone survivor of the massacre, is the culprit. Others share this view, including the novelist Makiko Saiga, whose novel The Forgotten Festival did much to scandalize K— following the murders. In the end, a solution is simultaneously suggested but out of reach.
In many ways the perpetrator is less important than the crime itself. The Aosawa Murders uses its many voices to examine the crime from different angles. Each individual offers either their own suspect (the detective, for instance, seems to imply guilt on Makiko’s part, saying that her book “had a certain ominous . . . or perhaps, shall we say . . . sinister undertone”) or eliminates other suspects (for instance the grandson of the tobacconist, who refuses to believe that the suicidal bike messenger blamed for the murders in 1973 actually planned the poisoning). In the very last paragraph, a new suspect is offered by one of the chief suspects, but even then the mystery remains.
The genius of this novel is that it cultivates a nonstop air of menace. Practically every character comes off like a potential murderer. As for K—, it is the quintessential town of secrets, with the Aosawa mansion as its morbid core. Speaking of that house, which is described as a Gothic pile, with Western-style windows, Japanese wood, and a constant stream of classical music, it is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House: a foul abode that is inexplicably evil.
The Aosawa Murders goes beyond the confines of detective fiction or the murder mystery and enters the territory of big “L” literature. This is a novel that simmers; it is a quiet horror show about human depravity lurking within the bosom of tranquillity. The house, the disabled girl, the murders, and the town—these elements create an intoxicating story that is as tragic and mysterious as life.
Riku Onda is an established writer in Japan, but I believe that The Aosawa Murders (Bitter Lemon Press) is her first foray into crime fiction, and it has taken 15 years to be translated into English. A mass-poisoning of party guests in the 1970s becomes the subject of a best-selling book some ten years later but two decades after that, all the evidence and testimony is reviewed in almost documentary style and the truth emerges. On the one hand, this is a ‘country house’ murder like no other (‘slaughter’ might be a better word) and along the way, there are fascinating insights into Japanese life, as well as death.
“A superb mystery in the true sense of the word.” Asahi Shimbun
“This spine-chilling masterpiece will make you aware of the dark places in your own heart.” Hokkaido Shimbun
“With superb skill, Onda depicts the ambiguity of truth and the unreliability of facts.” Shukan Pia