There have been a number of homicidal mass poisonings in Japanese history – The Teigin Incident in 1948, where a man posing as an epidemiologist persuaded the employees and patrons of a bank to drink an “inoculation against dysentery”, which in reality was cyanide; The Sonobe Incident of 1965, where a woman poisoned a communal pot of curry prepared for a summer festival with arsenic; The Paraquat Murders in 1985, a series of indiscriminate murders where someone unknown (the perpetrator was never found) killed twelve people and injured thirty-five, by lacing beverages in vending machines; the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack of 1995, not strictly a poisoning of course, but the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s release of sarin gas on the Tokyo subway has at least some similarities.

Japan isn’t unique in this, there have been such events in other countries, but in the popular culture of Japan (and Western writers writing about Japan) these incidents have certainly left their mark. David Peace fictionalised The Teigin Incident in his novel Occupied City, while the case also featured in Ian Fleming’s eleventh James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice. While an event in Nicolás Obregón’s latest novel, Unknown Male, bears similarities to The Sonobe Incident.

The Aosawa Murders is a Japanese novel, written by Japanese author Riku Onda, and is also centred on a mass poisoning event. The Aosawas are a prominent family in a provincial Japanese city. They own a medical clinic and generations of the family have treated local people’s ailments. The house they live in adjoins the clinic, and the combined clinic and Aosawa living quarters are a local landmark, combining as they do Japanese and Western architecture. One day, when hosting a large birthday celebration, drinks are delivered to the party which has been tampered with poison. Seventeen people die and there are just two survivors: a housekeeper and the Aosawa’s blind daughter. The investigation flounders and when the only suspect – a loner unconnected with the family and with mental health problems – commits suicide, it looks like the case will never be satisfactorily solved.

This novel slowly and painstakingly expounds the events of the crime, its build-up, and aftermath, through a series of different writing styles: some chapters are in a semi-interview style, a conversation where we only read one side, the interviewees; a few others are in the style of newspaper clippings and excerpts. Slowly, we learn the truth of what happened and our questions are answered: Was the loner really guilty of the crime, and if so, did he have help? What role did Hisako Aosawa, the Aosawa’s surviving daughter, have in the affair?

The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn novel, but it is a very compelling read. This novel was the winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Fiction and I can well see why.

A great find and a great read

James Pierson 5/5*

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda
978-1912242245 Bitter Lemon Press Paperback January 2020