The Aosawa Murders

Written by Riku Onda

Review written by Carole Tyrell

Carole Tyrrell worked in the theatre for nearly 10 years and was always fascinating by the way death and the supernatural formed many of the greatest and most enduring works. She has read crime fiction for many years and enjoys the broad range of the genre.

The Aosawa Murders
Bitter Lemon Press
RRP: £8.99
Released: January 16 2020

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 are slowly and carefully revealed, like 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 which 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

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