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.
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