Author, BIPOC 2021, Bitter Lemon Press, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Publisher, Reading Projects, Riku Onda, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 346 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

The Aosowa Murders by Riku Ondo turns the normal conventions of the crime novel on its head. Featuring multiple voices and multiple time frames, the story does not have a neat ending. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers. I finished it a week ago and I am still trying to process what happened.

Death by poison

The central focus of the story is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration in an impressive villa by the sea. The prime suspect is the family’s beautiful and bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill the loved ones who have given her such a comfortable and “normalised” life?

But The Aosowa Murders is not really a whodunnit because it emerges that another suspect — a young courier who delivered the drinks which were laced with poison — confessed to the crime in a suicide note he left behind when he hanged himself.

Instead, this novel is really about the long-lasting impact of such a horrendous crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well (they were prominent doctors and ran a health clinic) and the local community.

It’s told retrospectively, several decades after the crime, and is as much about a young university student, Makiko, a childhood friend of Hisako’s who wrote a best-selling fictionalised account of what happened, as it is about the actual event and its aftermath.

Eye-witness testimonies

The book is structured around a series of testimonies in which the interviewer remains absent, so you are never quite sure what the questions are or who is asking them. This lends a one-sided dimension to each chapter, but this multi-voiced approach allows the reader to put together a narrative in his or her head, joining the dots and solving the crime without anything being spelt out by the author herself.

This makes for a challenging read, but it’s a refreshing take on the crime novel. It’s almost as if you become the detective and with each passing chapter you gather more “evidence”, some of which is pivotal to the crime and some of which is irrelevant — and the fun is trying to determine which is which.

It’s an excellent portrait of contemporary Japan, its manners and morals, but I think the biggest (and most important) question it raises is this: how do you make sense of a terrible crime if you don’t understand the motive behind it?

If you like books that make you think, then The Aosowa Murders is a good one to tackle, but if you prefer your crime stories to be relatively straightforward with all the loose ends tied up by the end, then this is probably not for you.

The Aosawa Murders won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel and was selected by the New York Times as one of the most notable books of 2020. Lizzy liked it too.

This is my 3rd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 2nd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here.

Author, Bitter Lemon Press, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Esmahan Aykol, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Turkey

‘Hotel Bosphorus’ by Esmahan Aykol


Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 246 pages; 2011. Translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

I like crime novels and translated fiction so I thought this book, a murder mystery written by a Turkish writer, would be just my thing.

Hotel Bosphorus is set, as the title would suggest, in Istanbul. Billed as “the first Kati Hirschel murder mystery” it introduces us to the ballsy heroine who is the star of the series. (There are three written so far, but this is the first to be translated into English.)

Kati is 43 years old and single. Her heritage is German, but she has lived in Turkey “first for seven years, then for 13”, which is short hand for a much longer story: she was born in Istanbul, spent the first seven years of her life there, then moved away with her parents, only to return as a 30-year-old, where she has remained ever since.

What most readers will probably find most appealing about Kati is her profession: she is the proud owner of Istanbul’s only crime book shop. But whether you find it believable that her love of crime fiction means she has the ability to tackle a real life crime investigation is another thing. For me, I found this a leap of faith too far. Indeed, I found it fairly preposterous, but was prepared to give Aykol some leeway. It’s fiction after all.

The crime occurs in a hotel where Kati’s long-lost friend, Petra, is staying. Petra is a German movie star in town to begin work on a new film. The victim is the little-known German director of the film. There is deep suspicion that Petra murdered him because they were rumoured to have been romantically linked, but Petra denies any involvement — both in the murder and the romance.

While Kati’s not exactly sure whether Petra is telling the truth, she’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened. Along the way she strikes up a friendship with the local police inspector, who turns out to be the least professional policeman I’ve ever come across in fiction — he not only shares details of the investigation with Kati, he tries to have sex with her on two separate occasions! She also meets journalists and various members of the movie’s production crew, and she even has a run-in with a gangland boss. But it is a chance encounter with a suave Turkish lawyer that helps her solve the case. Yes, all rather ridiculous, I have to say.

However, I did enjoy the humour in this novel. Kati is an expert at delivering some terrific one-liners:

Also, from experience, I’ve learned that you can’t take revenge on someone who doesn’t care about you, whereas it’s easy to take revenge on someone who loves you — all you have to do is commit suicide.

And her wry observations about the differences between Germans and Turks are also very good. While those cultural differences might not exactly dispel racial stereotypes, Kati is allowed to make them because:

In my experience only those who have lived abroad have what it takes to criticize their own people, especially in the case of Germans.

Of course, she also tends to criticize Turkish people — for instance, the taxi drivers who don’t know where they are going — but leaps to their defence whenever she hears others put them down.

The only place in the world where I feel at home is Istanbul. Maybe that’s because Istanbul  is the only place that has no objection to me being myself… After a while, people don’t distinguish between which experiences they have selected for themselves and which have been dished out to them. I have a bona fide Turkish passport, yet in Turkey I’m a German. A German who speaks good Turkish. And when I’m in Germany, despite having a German passport and the fact that my mother’s a Roman Catholic, I’m a Jew.

But there were many things about this book which annoyed me, in particular Aykol’s emphasis on telling instead of showing. For instance:

To pass the time, I looked at the shop-window displays in the lobby. What strange things they were selling.

What were these “things”? Apples and handbags? Goatskin shoes and tacky snow globes? The author never bothers to tell us. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but Hotel Bosphorus is filled with sentences like this, and while I understand it’s a crime novel and not literary fiction this lack of attention to detail at the expense of moving the narrative forward feels shoddy. Indeed, most of the prose feels flat and limp.

The book certainly has its strengths, but on the whole I felt the story was clumsily written and the crime aspect was far too simplified for my tastes. It reminded me very much of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 LadiesDetective Agency, which, frankly, I hated. It’s fair to say I probably won’t be bothering with the rest of the Kati Herschel series when they eventually get translated, but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy them if you like whimsical murder mysteries set in foreign cities.