“I enjoy rambling about old towns. Going to an unknown place and glimpsing the lives of strangers. Walking around an old city is like a journey through time. I get a lot of pleasure from discovering remnants of times past,…”

That has parallels with the re-investigation of a mass murder that makes up the interviews in this novel. From the first few pages it was clear to me that this novel would stay in the mind long after I finished it. One of those crime stories that could actually make me see things differently. It’s an entertaining mystery that haunts the reader just as the murders haunts the characters. Answers are rarely more than conduits to further questions, which is as it should be with the examination of a devastating crime that echoes real events. If you’re looking for a neat ending this novel won’t satisfy that desire, like life it’s far too complex to offer up a single perspective or resolution. The Aosawa Murders is about perception, about the void between knowledge and assumptions, about changing perspectives over time and about how much each new presence in the story alters it’s meaning, there is no agreed upon narrative, no known motive, and probably, not certainly, the early identification of the killer is wrong. This is exciting, a crime novel of ideas.

In theory as the novel opens The Aosawa Murders have been solved, a man has confesses to the murders but he committed suicide leaving no explanation of why he did it. The policeman investigating events disbelieves the confession, not knowing the truth has drawn him into an abyss. Others are left dissatisfied by the lack of motive, there is no healing in the community, only a haphazard forgetting over time. Suspicion still falls on the only surviving member of the family, for the most part the crime remains incomprehensible. I admire the intelligence and perception of this intriguing and distinctly Japanese crime story. I found myself engaging with the different protagonists reflections on the murders, their original accounts, their understanding of what happened at the time, and shifts in perspective over time, when memory and deeper thought become players.

It’s a truly impressive feature of The Aosawa Murders that it holds a mirror up to society, it looks at the devastation and pain wrought by a terrible crime on everyone connected with it, also inherited loss, inherited guilt – for the city this is an open wound. Onda enfolds the reader into the emotional trauma of the survivors, the detective, the writer and the witnesses. We feel their doubts and incomprehension, it’s a powerful read. What is the truth, can we ever really know what happened in the Aosawa house in the fateful day? By investigating do we change events because we bring our own prejudices and ideas. Some people believe in the concept of evil, others know that: “Fear is a spice that lends credibility.” The author of the account of the murders speaks of the “traumatised enjoyment” of the crime. Those are phrases that offer a fascinating insight, not into the murders but how we interpret them.

Finally thirty years after the event we come to the re-examination of The Aosawa Murders that is this book. The writer of the best seller admits that she wasn’t searching for the truth when she wrote that true-crime account eleven years after the event, she can see that now but then she was working from her own desire to tell a story, not necessarily the “right” story.

The novel opens with the brief transcript of the police interview with Hisako Aosawa, the little girl, the only family survivor. She remembered an old dark blue room, an adult holding her hand, cold, crepe myrtle, scary white flowers in bloom, they are frightening but she doesn’t know why. There is no enlightenment here.
Thirty years on a series of interviews revisit the crime. There’s an evocative use of the landscape and weather help to set the mood. Set in an old coastal city, the prefecture capital, rain and wind obscure the views, the humidity and heat are oppressive. It all adds to the disorientation and alienation of the tale:
‘Even the pond water looks heavy and stagnant in this heat.’
The first interview is Makiko Saiga, the author of a book on the tragic murders, written eleven years after the event. Makiko was seven at the time of the murders, the family lived here four years before leaving, as a child she forgot the whole affair. But Makiko didn’t leave it behind it caught up with her, she felt the injustice everyone felt at the lack of answers. As a student she began to research the crime. It was a family party, girls were pressing flowers, later they found a glass on the table that had a message under it, and a flower in it. The only communication from the murderer.

Mikiko says she never expected the storm on publication of her book but also:
“It never occurred to me to wonder if what I wrote was the truth.”
It was her only book, she’s a housewife with young children, with a different view of the tragedy, perhaps in retrospect the book was rash and insensitive. Mikiko remembers that some people said the crime was similar to the Teigin incident at the end of the war, a man poisoned a group of people while claiming to be part of a vaccination programme.
The day was supposed to be two celebrations, the sixtieth birthday of the head of the family, Doctor Aosawa, and that of the grandmother, her eighty-eighth. A gift of Sake from a friend in another district was delivered with soft drinks for children. It was used for a toast, seventeen people died, including six children. Mikiko’s brother only survived because he came home from the party to fetch her and her older brother. When they returned people were writhing in agony, they called police. Why did this happen to the Aosawas?
There are telling details in the account but no spoilers here, then we hear from the assistant to the writer, housekeeper’s daughter, the tormented detective, Mikiko’s brother Sei-chi, the book editor, a shop keeper. Each throwing light on their own part and the testimony of others as much as the event itself. So what emerges is versions and revisions, not the truth, but a kind of treatise on the way we see the past, the passage of time, the way the crime reverberated. The puzzle of the crime isn’t solved but something of Japan and of life in general is illuminated.

Japan has a long established tradition of inventive crime writing, rich in local colour and cultural reinterpretation of themes. The Aosawa Murders is an elegantly written crime novel that respects that distinctive character, the tone and lyrical feel of the prose, a light, witty touch that dances across the page but gradually darkens as the deep trauma of the crime, the abyss engulfs everything. Japanese crime novels tend to share a couple of important traits, firstly they are deeply concerned with the psychology of the crime in question, the why, much more than the who or the how, although they do like making a game out of the how. Secondly, they like to involve the reader in the story, to get you thinking about how you feel about the things that are being presented to you for forensic inquiry. So from Edogawa Rampo, though Yokomizo, Kirino, to Onda it is what is at the heart of the crime that matters, (the psychology). Because Onda confronts the detail but the why remains elusive she has created a novel that tantalises and oppresses. The reader is left in no doubt about the devastation of the crime. I find this exhilarating.

Congratulations due to Alison Watts for a wonderful translation.

“I enjoy rambling about old towns. Going to an unknown place and glimpsing the lives of strangers. Walking around an old city is like a journey through time. I get a lot of pleasure from discovering remnants of times past,…”

That has parallels with the re-investigation of a mass murder that makes up the interviews in this novel. From the first few pages it was clear to me that this novel would stay in the mind long after I finished it. One of those crime stories that could actually make me see things differently. It’s an entertaining mystery that haunts the reader just as the murders haunts the characters. Answers are rarely more than conduits to further questions, which is as it should be with the examination of a devastating crime that echoes real events. If you’re looking for a neat ending this novel won’t satisfy that desire, like life it’s far too complex to offer up a single perspective or resolution. The Aosawa Murders is about perception, about the void between knowledge and assumptions, about changing perspectives over time and about how much each new presence in the story alters it’s meaning, there is no agreed upon narrative, no known motive, and probably, not certainly, the early identification of the killer is wrong. This is exciting, a crime novel of ideas.

In theory as the novel opens The Aosawa Murders have been solved, a man has confesses to the murders but he committed suicide leaving no explanation of why he did it. The policeman investigating events disbelieves the confession, not knowing the truth has drawn him into an abyss. Others are left dissatisfied by the lack of motive, there is no healing in the community, only a haphazard forgetting over time. Suspicion still falls on the only surviving member of the family, for the most part the crime remains incomprehensible. I admire the intelligence and perception of this intriguing and distinctly Japanese crime story. I found myself engaging with the different protagonists reflections on the murders, their original accounts, their understanding of what happened at the time, and shifts in perspective over time, when memory and deeper thought become players.

It’s a truly impressive feature of The Aosawa Murders that it holds a mirror up to society, it looks at the devastation and pain wrought by a terrible crime on everyone connected with it, also inherited loss, inherited guilt – for the city this is an open wound. Onda enfolds the reader into the emotional trauma of the survivors, the detective, the writer and the witnesses. We feel their doubts and incomprehension, it’s a powerful read. What is the truth, can we ever really know what happened in the Aosawa house in the fateful day? By investigating do we change events because we bring our own prejudices and ideas. Some people believe in the concept of evil, others know that: “Fear is a spice that lends credibility.” The author of the account of the murders speaks of the “traumatised enjoyment” of the crime. Those are phrases that offer a fascinating insight, not into the murders but how we interpret them.

Finally thirty years after the event we come to the re-examination of The Aosawa Murders that is this book. The writer of the best seller admits that she wasn’t searching for the truth when she wrote that true-crime account eleven years after the event, she can see that now but then she was working from her own desire to tell a story, not necessarily the “right” story.

The novel opens with the brief transcript of the police interview with Hisako Aosawa, the little girl, the only family survivor. She remembered an old dark blue room, an adult holding her hand, cold, crepe myrtle, scary white flowers in bloom, they are frightening but she doesn’t know why. There is no enlightenment here.
Thirty years on a series of interviews revisit the crime. There’s an evocative use of the landscape and weather help to set the mood. K_______ is an old coastal city, the prefecture capital, rain and wind obscure the views, the humidity and heat are oppressive. It all adds to the disorientation and alienation of the tale:
‘Even the pond water looks heavy and stagnant in this heat.’
The first interview is Makiko Saiga, the author of a book on the tragic murders, written eleven years after the event. Makiko was seven at the time of the murders, the family lived here four years before leaving, as a child she forgot the whole affair. But Makiko didn’t leave it behind it caught up with her, she felt the injustice everyone felt at the lack of answers. As a student she began to research the crime. It was a family party, girls were pressing flowers, later they found a glass on the table that had a message under it, and a flower in it. The only communication from the murderer.

Mikiko says she never expected the storm on publication of her book but also:
“It never occurred to me to wonder if what I wrote was the truth.”
It was her only book, she’s a housewife with young children, with a different view of the tragedy, perhaps in retrospect the book was rash and insensitive. Mikiko remembers that some people said the crime was similar to the Teigin incident at the end of the war, a man poisoned a group of people while claiming to be part of a vaccination programme.
The day was supposed to be two celebrations, the sixtieth birthday of the head of the family, Doctor Aosawa, and that of the grandmother, her eighty-eighth. A gift of Sake from a friend in another district was delivered with soft drinks for children. It was used for a toast, seventeen people died, including six children. Mikiko’s brother only survived because he came home from the party to fetch her and her older brother. When they returned people were writhing in agony, they called police. Why did this happen to the Aosawas?
There are telling details in the account but no spoilers here, then we hear from the assistant to the writer, housekeeper’s daughter, the tormented detective, Mikiko’s brother Sei-chi, the book editor, a shop keeper. Each throwing light on their own part and the testimony of others as much as the event itself. So what emerges is versions and revisions, not the truth, but a kind of treatise on the way we see the past, the passage of time, the way the crime reverberated. The puzzle of the crime isn’t solved but something of Japan and of life in general is illuminated.

Japan has a long established tradition of inventive crime writing, rich in local colour and cultural reinterpretation of themes. The Aosawa Murders is an elegantly written crime novel that respects that distinctive character, the tone and lyrical feel of the prose, a light, witty touch that dances across the page but gradually darkens as the deep trauma of the crime, the abyss engulfs everything. Japanese crime novels tend to share a couple of important traits, firstly they are deeply concerned with the psychology of the crime in question, the why, much more than the who or the how, although they do like making a game out of the how. Secondly, they like to involve the reader in the story, to get you thinking about how you feel about the things that are being presented to you for forensic inquiry. So from Edogawa Rampo, though Yokomizo, Kirino, to Onda it is what is at the heart of the crime that matters, (the psychology). Because Onda confronts the detail but the why remains elusive she has created a novel that tantalises and oppresses. The reader is left in no doubt about the devastation of the crime. I find this exhilarating.

Congratulations due to Alison Watts for a wonderful translation

Paul Burke 5/4*

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda
9781912242245 Bitter Lemon Press Paperback  February 2020