There are many layers to Riku Onda’s hypnotic novel, The Aosawa Murders (seamlessly translated by Alison Watts). At the center of this particular onion is a mass poisoning in 1973. Then, there is a deliberately ambiguous book published about the murders that blurs the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Lastly, the book in our hands: a collection of interviews and documents collected by an unnamed narrator. We are given clues to try and understand what happened but this book is more about how rumors travel, can change reputations in an instant, and make us obsess for years.
It’s little surprise that the mass poisoning of the respected Aosawa family is still the talk of the town of K—, even thirty years after the fact. While a culprit was identified, no one knows why a man with no connection to the family would decide to poison sake and sodas and then deliver the beverages to the Aosawas. The fact that the police and the community never find out why keeps tongues waging in K—. Part of the appeal of The Aosawa Murders is trying one’s hand at figuring out what the police were unable to uncover at the time of the poisonings.
As I read The Aosawa Murders, I realized that there was another mystery afoot. When the unnamed narrator interviews the author of The Forgotten Festival, the “definitive” book on the murders, there are clues that the author had ulterior motives in writing the book. This author was apparently a master at getting people to reveal information they thought they had forgotten or just hadn’t realized the significance of. The unnamed narrator follows this author’s trail and re-interviews many of the author’s informants. We hear the same basic story, from different angles, but there are new pieces of information that the police didn’t have at the time. These clues point to something much more sinister than the more believable story of a lone madman.
The Aosawa Murders is an unusual crime novel. Unlike so many other books in the mystery genre and all its sub-genres, this novel reads like a deconstruction. The unnamed narrator leaves much of the work to the reader to put the pieces together from the texts and interviews they present. We have to decide what’s significant and what can be discarded as irrelevant. It’s always a little startling to me when I’m reminded of the overlap between an English major and a detective. Both hear stories and have to make meaning of what we’ve been told. The Aosawa Murders, on top of being an unusual case to puzzle over, is also a fascinating piece of literature to try and understand.