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Oct 26, 2019:
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RIKU ONDA: The AOSAWA MURDERS.       
BITTER LEMON PRESS 
£ 8.99  paperback 346 pages
16 January 2020

  • ISBN-10: 1912242249
  • ISBN-13: 978-1912242245
         

The Aosawa Murders won the Mystery Writers Of Japan Award for Fiction.  And so it should have.  We can assume that the protest from rivals would have been few.  The Aosawa Murders exposes the limitations of crime novels that we had previously thought accomplished and probably are to be fair.  In her first crime novel the author Riku Onda has produced a story that is bold, original and accomplished. The plot of The Aosawa Murders concerns the murder of 17 people 40 years earlier. The crime may be wilful and destructive but in the telling Onda avoids gore. The Aosawa Murders evokes a quiet and patient Japanese horror movie where the violence occurs out of sight and the secrets of the protagonists feel mystical.  The delicate elegance of the prose is a delight but more than mere style.  The real mystery is not the identity of the murderer but the confused legacy left by the crime.  Life leaves us baffled and grief compounds that confusion. The conclusion of the book is not tentative but neither is it simple exposure.  Onda leaves plenty for the reader to ponder and wonder.

Like the great Victorian novels of Wilkie Collins, The Aosawa Murders has more than one narrator.  None are reliable.  They are either deceitful or limited or both.  One of the narrators has written a book about the crimes.  Others are suspicious about both the author and the contents of her book, The Forgotten Festival.  This does not deter Onda from using extracts from the book to support the narrative.  Each of these narrators are curious about the crime that marred their community and lives.  Onda understands that detection is not limited to the solitary hero.  We are all inquisitive and like to collect gossip.  This sounds obvious but in the context of a crime novel it feels like an epiphany.  Not everyone writes books about crimes but they have stories inside their heads.  At one point a character suggests that when someone dies we lose a library.  Not since mobile phones appeared perhaps but we know what Onda means.  In crude detective novels the hero is obliged to investigate lies from people with vested interests.  There is nothing as crude as lies in The Aosawa Murders.  Instead there is the confusion and distortion that exist under the layers of the alternative narratives.  Apart from the murderer the worst these people do is carry on with their lives.  

Onda never loses sympathy for her characters.  The great Japanese film director Yasujirõ resisted making crime movies but if he was still alive he might have been tempted by the restraint and humanism of The Aosawa Murders.  The narrators may be unreliable but if they are baffled, their suspicions are important and valid.   They have curiosity rather than a desire for vengeance.  This is not the world of an American avenger like the Mickey Spillane hero, Mike Hammer.  The identification of the murderer is satisfying but the exposure is also redundant.  17 people are dead, and as always time is scornful of suffering.  Discovery in this instance denies not just vengeance but even judgement.

 By Howard Jackson