Japanese Crime Fiction: The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, transl. Alison Watts (Bitter Lemon Press)

I ‘accidentally’ borrowed this book from the library just before the second lockdown (i.e. it jumped into my arms from the ‘new acquisitions’ shelf when I went to the library to pick up my reserved books), and I have to return it soon, so I cannot wait until January in Japan to review it. All I can tell you is that it’s a really interesting, really fascinating read and I want to recommend it to everyone who has even a passing interest in Japan.

It is a very Japanese approach to crime and guilt, in that the focus is more on psychology and different (conflicting) versions of the story, rather than pure detection. I am thinking of books such as those by Natsuo Kirino or Kanae Minato with their tortured, twisted protagonists, but even the more ‘conventional’ police procedurals of Keigo Higashino, Tetsuya Honda or Hideo Yokoyama have elements of long-held grudges or unusual (one might almost say supernatural) coincidences. And of course we have the classic Rashomon to remind us to never take stories at their face value, that the truth may always elude us. If you are comfortable with ambiguity, with not quite being able to make up your mind what the definitive answer to the puzzle is, then this is the book for you.

The Aosawas are a wealthy family, owners of a local hospital which is located within their large villa in a coastal town in Japan. On a hot summer day in the 1970s they are celebrating three family birthdays but the joyful event turns to tragedy when 17 members of the family and servants die from poison in drinks which had been delivered to their house supposedly from a doctor in another town. There are only two survivors: the housekeeper who only touched a drop of the drink and was severely ill as a result, and the blind daughter of the house Hisako.

Although the prime suspect (the man who delivered the drinks) committed suicide, and the case was closed, there are many people connected to the case who are not satisfied with this so-called admission of guilt. Eleven years after the events, one of the people somewhat connected to the family publishes a bestselling book about the tragedy (although it doesn’t seem to point the finger of blame at anybody specifically). Thirty years after the murders, the case is investigated once more, this time unofficially by one of the people who read the bestselling book and who is now re-interviewing survivors and witnesses.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view, most of them in interview style, but some of them are chapters from the book or excerpts from police files. Some of the characters seem quite tangential to the story (the son of the owner of the neighbourhood stationery shop, for example, or the editor of the bestselling book), but each story adds another layer of complexity. At the time of reading, you may not realise the significance of certain scenes or descriptions or words, but at the end of the book, you go back and reread certain passages and things seem much clearer.

I was entranced with how different each of the chapters was stylistically. No danger of getting confused because all of the narrative voices sound ‘samey’. I can imagine the gender, regional and educational differences would be even more marked in the original Japanese, so the translator did an excellent job of managing to convey that with more limited resources available in English.

The book was originally published in Japan in 2006 under the name Eugenia, and the author won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for it. Riku Onda is a prolific and prize-winning author in Japan, with many film and TV adaptations of her work. She has written a few other ‘crime’ style books, and also across many other genres, including speculative and literary fiction. I hope the success of this book in English means that more of her work will become available to those of us who cannot read Japanese.

27 thoughts on “Japanese Crime Fiction: The Aosawa Murders”

    1. I think hardcore crime fiction readers might be disappointed, because it has no clearcut answers. But for those of us who like unusual crime fiction (or believe crime fiction is really about everything going on in the world), it is perfect!

    1. It’s not a thriller-thriller, as in high-paced non-stop action. It’s more one to read slowly and immerse yourself in the language, atmosphere and little tiny clues dropped along the way.

  1. I am reading The Aosawa Murders right now, and have found it pretty intriguing so far, so your review could not have been more timely! Glad to know you liked it.

    What also caught my attention is that this book is published by Bitter Lemon Press. I had read another title of theirs earlier this year – A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto – and it was excellent. It had a Patricia Highsmith feel to it.

  2. Oh, I must plan to read this, Marina Sofia! I really like Minatao, Kirino, and Higashino very much, and this storyline intrigues me. I haven’t read much Japanese crime fiction lately, so this is a nice nudge to do some of that. Thanks!

  3. An open library! Collecting reserved books! Pray tell what kind of heaven is that? (I have books on reserve since March that have yet to become available …)

    1. Reserve and collect service only, although they briefly did open up in October for browsing for about two weeks. Only one library in the whole of the borough though. But they’ve been doing brilliant work, bless them, also putting lots of stuff online, including films!

  4. Loved the review! I read this last August (for literature in translation month or whatever) but never got around to writing about it as I didn’t know quite where to begin. I agree it was a wonderful read, particularly for those who can tolerat ambiguity and enjoy stories that switch points of view/perspective.; like you, I think Onda did a great job at distinguishing the different narrative voices. In case you’re interested, the NY Times named this as one of its 100 notable books of the year.

    1. I did not know that, thanks for letting me know! And if you do get a chance to review it, if it’s not too long since you read it, would love to read your review. I enjoyed it a lot more than the other two Japanese crime novels I read earlier this year (although I liked those too): The Inugami Curse and Murder in the Crooked House.

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