The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders
Japanese Title: EUGENIA (ユージニア)
Author: Riku Onda (恩田 陸)
Translator: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2005 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
Pages: 315

In 1973, in a small seaside town on the west coast of Japan, the prominent Aosawa family and their guests were poisoned with cyanide during a birthday party, an incident resulting in the death of seventeen people. Makiko Saiga, who was a child at the time, later interviewed people connected to the family for her senior thesis, which ended up becoming a true-crime bestseller titled The Forgotten Festival. Makiko never published another book and refused to give interviews, and the sole survivor of the Aosawa family, a young woman named Hisako, married and moved to the United States. When the young man who delivered the poisoned alcohol to the party committed suicide, the police closed the case.

Thirty years after the incident, however, it has become apparent that there may be more to the story. There are fourteen chapters in The Aosawa Murders, each narrated from the perspective of someone once connected with the Aosawa family or the publication of The Forgotten Festival. Makiko Saiga is polite yet evasive, her research assistant knows that there are small departures from reality in her account but doesn’t know what to make of them, the detective who investigated the case is convinced that Hisako Aosawa is responsible for the murders but can’t quite prove it, while someone who knew the supposed culprit believes the young man was used by a mysterious woman. A handful of other people, such as Makiko’s brother and the daughter of the housekeeper of the Aosawa family, offer additional intriguing anecdotes.

The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn. For the first two-thirds of the novel, the reader has no choice but to take each separate account as it comes while trying to pick out the connecting threads, which initially seem to be few and far between. The Aosawa Murders respects the intelligence of its reader by presenting information impartially without cliffhangers, false leads, or red herrings. The circumstances surrounding the mystery are compelling enough to warrant sustained attention, but the narrative pace allows the reader to take time with each account without being driven to rush forward.

When things start to come together in the last hundred pages, the true brilliance of the story becomes apparent. The final two chapters focus on Hisako Aosawa (now Hisako Schmidt) and Makiko Saiga, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with them both. After hearing so much about them from secondhand accounts, the down-to-earth reality of their actual personalities was refreshing. Regardless of what each of them may or may not have done, the author reminds us that both of these women are far more than archetypes in someone else’s story.

Although an astute reader will have formed several theories about what happened, the novel never presents a simple and neatly packaged explanation. The ending is fragmented and recounted in a jarring manner that serves as one of the strongest clues concerning the identity of the narrator who has presumably assembled the accounts that appear in the story. I can imagine that some people may find this sort of open-ended conclusion anticlimactic, but it was extremely satisfying to me.

I have to admit that I enjoy formulaic murder mysteries in which everything is carefully arranged and fits together perfectly at the end. The Aosawa Murders is not that type of story, however – not by a long shot. Instead, the novel is a sprawling puzzle that rewards the reader’s active attention and engagement. This is not a book that can be read in an afternoon, but the strength of the writing and the quality of the translation encourage sustained reflection and speculation. I had an enormous amount of fun with The Aosawa Murders, and I would happily recommend it to anyone looking for an uncommon mystery written by a mature and confident storyteller.

To anyone concerned about such things, there is no overt violence, sexism, or misogyny in The Aosawa Murders. In addition, aside from a minor subplot involving a Buddhist priest, the story doesn’t contain any particularly “Japanese” elements, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Japanese society or police procedure in order to fully appreciate the characters and plot. In fact, I think The Aosawa Murders would make an excellent addition to a reading list of contemporary international mystery writers.

A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Bitter Lemon Press. The quality of the publication is excellent, and I’m thrilled and delighted that Riku Onda’s work has been able to make such a stunning debut in English translation.

The Devil’s Whisper

Title: The Devil’s Whisper
Japanese Title: 魔術はささやく (Majutsu wa sasayaku)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部みゆき)
Translator: Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi
Publication Year: 1989 (Japan); 2007 (America)
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 254

Some people say that Miyabe Miyuki is the Stephen King of Japan. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I think it has something to do with the fact that she has published a hell of a lot of books (as well as scripts for radio dramas, manga, and video games). Her work is superlatively popular, and a great deal of it is dark or fantastic. She is perhaps best known in America for her murder mystery novels, which more often than not feature a killer who uses a magical or semi-magical power as his or her modus operandi.

The killer in The Devil’s Whisper is a hypnotist, as the book’s title implies. (I think I may have just given away what one of the blurbs on the back cover calls “a brilliant plot twist,” but I found it fairly obvious from the beginning of the novel.) He has hypnotized a young woman to run out in front of a taxi, thus making her death seem like a suicide. So far, so good. The driver of the taxi, however, is charged with vehicular manslaughter and imprisoned. His sixteen-year-old nephew, Mamoru, senses something fishy about the police reports and decides to investigate the matter himself. Mamoru is basically a decent kid, but he’s got some skeletons in his closet that come out to haunt him as the story progresses. The novel therefore presents two mysteries to the reader: what grudge does the hypnotist killer have against the women he murders, and why did Mamoru’s father abandon him and his mother when he was a young child? The way that these two plotlines come together at the end of the book is quite interesting and enjoyable.

Although The Devil’s Whisper does not suffer from an abundance of characterization, almost everyone comes off as sympathetic. Mamoru does indeed bear traces of several Stephen King characters like Danny from The Shining and Jack from The Talisman, who are bright and earnest boys placed in difficult situations. The killer comes off as a kind of Hannibal Lecter figure, as logical and urbane as he is insane. The real villains of the novel actually seem to be the young women who are being killed, although the reader is forced to wonder whether they really deserved to die.

In my eyes, the major weakness of Miyabe’s style is that she tells her reader what every character is thinking. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a flaw, but Miyabe will occasionally write entire sequences of paragraphs explaining the obvious. One of the first pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is to show, not tell. A relative clause depicting a character picking at her fingernail can say much more about her state of mind than an entire paragraph attempting to chart what is going on inside of her head. Since The Devil’s Whisper is only about 250 pages long, this type of inner explication is by necessity kept to a minimum, and a great deal of it is expressed in dialog, which partially reduces the level of tedium and keeps the action moving. Miyabe’s characters are interesting; but, unfortunately, none of them are so interesting that I want to know every thought that passes through their minds.

Overall, Miyabe’s mystery novels range from excellent (All She Was Worth) to decent (Shadow Family) to so horrible that they make me want to claw my eyes out (Crossfire). The Devil’s Whisper falls somewhere in the middle, and I would recommend it over many of Miyabe’s other titles available in translation.