When I read detective fiction, I either gravitate to old, worn Penguin paperbacks with green spines and worn pages (I have a bunch from a bookshop haul last year) or Japanese detective fiction. A lot of Japanese detective fiction are puzzle mysteries, which I have a weakness for. For these books, I’m more interested in the mystery’s structure, which often takes precedent over characterisation. Usually in a puzzle mystery you get the plodding police officer, the eccentric detective and a way how it all fits together, which is usually prioritised over other factors.
The Aosawa Murders is the opposite—a beautifully layered mystery, a character study and a puzzle that is not clearly explained. There’s no scene where a detective lays everything out; instead you’ll either be frustrated or want to re-read the work carefully to see what you missed. I think it’s obvious who the murderer is, but the question is more why, and how the clues revealed throughout the book fit int the crime scene.
The story is told in layers, through several short stories where an unrevealed narrator is asking questions of witnesses associated with the case. Most of the chapters are told in directed conversation (I think that’s what it’s called) when I am clearly narrating in first person, but I’m also talking to you, the reader, and explaining this as I type out this blog post.
The story is about a mass poisoning of a family that takes place in the 1970s, who were gathered for the party. A few cryptic clues are left at the scene, which the book opens with; they’re made relevant later. A famous book, ‘The Forgotten Festival’ was written about the murders. In some stories, the narrator interviews the author of the book, in others it’s her research assistant. Other stories focus on the person arrested for the murder—more of a character study from those that knew him tangentially. There’s a segment from the detective that worked on the case. In the penultimate story, the interviewer confronts the probable murderer.
Everything is richly described, evoking the heat and feeling of the city during that period. The overlapping stories fit together like a mostly-complete jigsaw puzzle.