Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders, published in Japan in 2005 and translated into English in 2020 by Alison Watts, is a bit too literary in ambition to be considered honkaku by genre purists. It is more fitting to classify Onda as a shin honkaku, or “new orthodox,” writer, but even then she is pushing against the boundaries of the form. Her first crime novel, as well as her first book to be translated into English, The Aosawa Murders won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel. In it, she explores not just the psychology and motivations of her characters, but also the meta nature of our relationship to murder mysteries and, in an abstract sense, the murderer — all while constructing the perfect crime around a surprisingly simple (and familiar) formula, as explained by the police detective assigned to the case: “If there are ten people in a house and nine die, who is the culprit? It’s not a whodunnit. The answer is easy — it’s the survivor, of course.” But how do you prove it?
The Aosawas, a prominent and wealthy family, hold a party to celebrate two important events: the patriarch, a well-respected doctor in the community whose clinic is attached to the family home, is turning 60, his mother 88. Because of the auspiciousness of the birthdays, the house is opened up and the entire neighborhood invited. Pastries are passed out and drinks served. A surprise gift of rice wine and soft drinks arrives with a card of congratulations from an old family friend. No one suspects the bottles have been poisoned. By day’s end, 17 people will have died, six of them children. Hisako, the preternaturally beautiful and blind daughter of the house, is the only member of the family who survives. She doesn’t eat or drink anything and, as a result, escapes entirely unharmed. Three neighborhood children, who show up late to the party, alert the police. It is an experience they will each carry with them, in different ways, for the rest of their lives.
The three of us arrived at the house to discover a scene from hell. People were scattered everywhere, writhing in agony. At first, we didn’t realize they were in pain, because we couldn’t comprehend what we were seeing. It looked like they might have been dancing about in celebration. But there was also vomit everywhere, and a sickly, sour smell drifting through the front entrance.
It was a long time before we could get that stench out of our nostrils. Just the sight of a soft drink was enough to bring back the smell for my brother, and he couldn’t drink any for a long time afterwards.
Eleven years later, one of those children will write a book about the event. Ostensibly as part of her university thesis, Makiko Saiga returns to her childhood community to interview anyone left who remembers the Aosawa murders. The result is The Forgotten Festival, an immediate best seller.
Saiga’s book is marketed as a fictional account of a true event, and its author makes the controversial decision to leave the ending open, with no attempt at resolving the many inconsistencies and enigmas that were present in the case. “No matter how much a writer tries to adhere to the truth, the notion of non-fiction is an illusion. All that can exist is fiction visible to the eye.” Uninterested in fame, Saiga refuses all interviews and instructs her publisher not to give out her contact information. She never writes another book, going on to live a normal, even boring, life.
But this is all backstory. Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders is set 10 years after the publication of The Forgotten Festival and 30 years after the murders occurred. Told mostly through a series of one-sided interviews, revisiting the people who Saiga interviewed for her book, the reader is provided with only the responses — a transcription of the conversation which omits the questions and the person asking them. The identity of this mysterious interviewer becomes another part of the multifaceted puzzle. He, or she, remains a shadowy figure lurking just off-page until the final chapters.
It’s a device that takes a little getting used to. The artificiality of the setup, the gaps in the conversation, and the unsettling illusion that the narrators are addressing someone who isn’t there keep the reader off-balance. Onda successfully structures her characters’ monologues to imply the presence of a second party in the conversation, but these chapters still read like transcripts — which is intentional. The forward momentum of the plot, with its seemingly endless stream of information, flows indiscriminate and uninterrupted, like a spigot left open in the yard. Newspaper articles, flashbacks in the third person, and excerpts from The Forgotten Festival are interspersed among the testimonials, creating a virtual deluge for the reader to wade through. Adding to this already complicated narrative structure: the plot itself is nonlinear. Onda jumps around, coming at the truth from multiple angles.
In almost all the murder cases he had handled it was obvious from the first who the murderer was, since he or she would either be at the scene of the crime standing next to the victim in a state of bewilderment, or would have fled in horror at their own actions but be easy enough to track down quickly. He had never seen a perpetrator like the ones on TV — a tuxedo-wearing, champagne-drinking schemer who lives in a mansion with a pool, has complicated interests at stake, is the type to say “call my lawyer” and commits a carefully thought-out crime requiring the preparation of an alibi and the planting of red herrings in advance — and nor did he ever expect to encounter one either.
Alison Watts’s translation engages the reader but is difficult to pin down due to the nature of the form. Because every element is subordinated to the puzzle, the prose and characters in honkaku and shin honkaku mysteries tend to be underdeveloped. This, too, is done on purpose. So, while there are moments in The Aosawa Murders, sections of plot and dialogue which appear affected, in my experience this is fairly typical of the subgenre. Onda stands out among her community in that she has delved further into her characters’ psyches than most, and the novel is at its best when the author is posing questions that exist adjacent to the murders. Who is the mysterious interviewer, and what is their role in the story? Why did Makiko Saiga write The Forgotten Festival? What part, if any, did Hisako play in the death of her family? And, if she was involved, to what lengths would she go to cover up the truth?
Fashions, by definition, change; literary fashions are no exception. As the technology and resources available to law enforcement have evolved, so too has the mystery genre. Forensic evidence and video footage have shifted the focus away from deductive reasoning. In a world where traffic camera footage or a stray hair follicle can pinpoint a killer, writers find ways to compensate. The murders become more elaborate and the murderers more psychologically bizarre. Puzzles are replaced by skillfully constructed games of cat and mouse between would-be profilers and serial killers. These days, in the hierarchy of importance, characters take precedence over plot. And every writer hopes for a long-running series.
There are work-arounds. Writers set their stories in the past, banish their police force to a remote outpost without access to a lab, or just ignore modern forensic science altogether. You’ll frequently find one of these conventions in honkaku and shin honkaku novels. They share other features: many are set in postwar Japan, are based on locked room puzzles, and function as stand-alone books. Diagrams feature heavily. But few can claim to be as multilayered as The Aosawa Murders, which lines up reveal after reveal, one following another in quick succession, each of which has to be sifted out of that flood of information and pieced together by none other than the reader.
Riku Onda has taken the locked room dilemma and turned it inside out. Her crime scene is a party, with people constantly coming and going. We are told the identity of the suspected killer from the start. Only the central conceit of shin honkaku — the challenge created by restricted access — is kept intact. The reader is expected to reverse-engineer events in order to answer how this specific person, under the given set of constraints, could have planned and executed such an elaborate crime. How could an innocent young girl, loved by all, blind and never left unattended, have orchestrated a mass killing? To this end, each character interviewed functions as a room in the elaborate house of memory Onda has carefully built for us to explore.
Readers, when all is said and done, adore a mousetrap. The more elaborately constructed it is, the better. Because even if we don’t find the solution (and really, how many people manage to beat the author to the final revelation around which his or her story is based?) we take satisfaction in our ability to recognize and revel in the author’s cleverness if not our own.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large.