Not for lightweights
Riku Onda's 'The Aosawa Murders' a challenge worth every second

Not for lightweights
Jeffrey Mannix - 03/05/2020

This month’s Murder Ink comes with a disclaimer: The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda is not for everybody. Quit reading now and turn the page if that didn’t raise the hair on your neck. 

More to the point, this book is not for the amateur reader who coaxes a book along a few pages now and again. Murder Ink has recommended excellent crime fiction books that can be read piecemeal or as a soporific read in bed, but The Aosawa Murders is anything but a casual read. Like the 10-meter diving platform in an Olympic swim pool, you probably shouldn’t be at that elevation if you haven’t first worked your way up in stages or are born with no fear of heights.

With that injunction, and if you’ll be goddamned, The Aosawa Murders is one of the most fascinating books you’ll ever read. Riku Onda’s first book translated to English from Japanese, it was released last month by Bitter Lemon Press of London. It won the award for Best Novel by the prestigious Mystery Writers of Japan and is the talk of the publishing world right now, even to the point of including its cover design as one of the top 10 best of this year. It will surely enjoy elevated notice and awards from The Crime Writers’ Association and Mystery Writers of America.

Now, let me see if I can peel up a corner of the scrim that so cleverly bedims the scenes. At the same time, it agitates the account of the poisoning death of 17 members of the prominent Aosawa family, save for two children, a housekeeper and a blind but percipient ingénue daughter, Hisako.

In what Westerners may see as a puzzling Asian custom, a messenger in a yellow raincoat and motorcycle helmet delivers a gift of saké for a celebratory toast at the patriarch’s birthday. All 17 adults raise their glasses in salutation, and all instantly fall to the ground writhing in pain and soon die from notoriously vicious cyanide. Two of the children were off playing, and the only Aosawa family member present who didn’t drink the saké – the blind 12-year-old Hisako – sat composed as everyone suffered in the extreme.

The messenger was subsequently identified at the scene of his own suicide from a note admitting to delivering the poisoned saké. The police close the case; but the lead detective is never convinced. Twelve years later, Makiko Saiga, one of the spared children playing in another room during the deadly toast, writes a book about the crime for her university thesis, calling it “The Forgotten Festival.” It becomes a true-crime bestseller; Makiko never writes another book and refuses to give interviews. Meanwhile, Hisako, the sole Aosawa survivor and witness to the murders, marries and moves to the United States under a penumbra of suspicion. 

Thirty years after the event, Makiko is carrying on a conversation with renewed interest about her bestseller. She reveals her survivor attachment to the Aosawa murders and ambivalence toward the single family survivor now an ocean away.  

The Aosawa Murders is a fiction told in 14 chapters relative to Makiko’s thesis. It’s a book about a book about a crime. Theories abound from lots of opinions developed over the 30 years since the unspeakable spoke and came up with theories about the lack of substance to those theories. And then the book ends. It’s near brilliant.

The Aosawa Murders is a $15 paperback, and with Maria’s Bookshop 15 percent Murder Ink discount, it’s cheaper than getting your car washed. So if you’re inclined to throw down the gauntlet over my opening disparagement – and I know you are – buy this book and hold me to a higher standard next month.

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