Monday, June 1, 2020


THE AOSAWA MURDERS by Riku Onda, translated by Alison Watts (Bitter Lemon, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

On a stormy summer day the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party. The occasion turns into tragedy when 17 people die from cyanide in their drinks. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer's, and the physician's bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only person spared injury. But the youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery. 

The police are convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written a decade after the incident, who was herself a childhood friend of Hisako’ and witness to the discovery of the murders.

Could a beautiful blind teenager really have killed her whole family? Thirty years after a horrifying 1973 gathering where 17 people died from poison-laced drinks during a party at the home of a prominent local family, Makiko Saiga is interviewed. An author and childhood neighbour of the Aosawa family, her book that she wrote as a university student a decade after that fateful day left open the implication that someone other than the prime suspect, a deliveryman who hung himself and left a confession months after the murders, may have been involved. Makiko’s not the only one to wonder about Hisako, the blind daughter and sole surviving member of the family. But what is the real truth at the heart of this tragedy?

In a book that won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel in 2006, Onda takes readers on a beguiling and unusual ride. The story unfolds from a variety of perspectives: snatches from an interview with Makiko Saiga where we only read her answers and not the unseen narrator’s questions, interviews in the same style with the housekeeper, the detective, and others involved in the original case, excerpts from Saiga’s bestselling book about the case, and segments of a new manuscript by another writer.

It's a kaleidoscopic method of storytelling, and readers may have to shake things together in their head to try to form and see some sort of clear picture from the various shards. The heat and humidity of the seaside town, known only as K___, adds to the discomforting and strange atmosphere. An unusual and absorbing tale from a bold storyteller.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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