By Riku Onda
Setting & details: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Authenticity of Japanese characters & dialogue: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Translation quality: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation: This book is one of those rare Japanese mysteries that don’t lose something essential in translation. It’s told in such a way that the reader collects each piece of the puzzle from characters who didn’t necessarily reveal what they knew to the investigators, and ties up at the end with a satisfying reveal.
This is one of the rare prizewinning Japanese murder mysteries that’s nearly as good in English as it is in Japanese.* (It snagged the Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan.) The crime at the center of the story is one that actually happens in Japan periodically: someone poisons the food or drink at a large family/neighborhood gathering and indiscriminately kills a shocking number of people. The case in this novel is closed after one of the suspects commits suicide, leaving a note claiming responsibility. But questions remain. A number of people are unconvinced he acted alone, and when a girl from the neighborhood grows up and decides to write a book about it, she stirs up memories and information that hadn’t been uncovered before.
Each chapter in The Aosawa Murders is told in the words of someone who was connected to the incident, and the reader becomes the omniscient detective who’s privy to information that wasn’t given to the real detectives who investigated it. At the end, we discover not just the perpetrator, but how the crime was committed and the reason for it.
* Why are there so few great Japanese mysteries in translation? It’s not because mysteries aren’t a popular genre in Japan, it’s because they make cultural assumptions about the reader that are confusing if you’re not Japanese. For example, I was working with a Japanese actor to translate a traditional comic rakugo story into English. He was demonstrating the part we were working on, and he “arrived” at the house where a gathering was being held, then said, “Ah, I see everyone is already here.” Then he opened the door to go inside. “Wait,” I said. “Didn’t you get that backwards? Shouldn’t you open the door before you mention that everyone is already there?” He looked at me, puzzled. “No, didn’t you notice how I looked down at all the pairs of shoes people left outside first?” The problem is, if you don’t come from a country where people take off their shoes before going indoors, you’re going to miss that important point. And there’s no elegant fix, especially for murder mysteries. You either have to add lots of heavy-handed cultural explanation to make the detective’s leaps of deduction make sense, or baffle foreign readers who have no idea how the sleuth guessed a crowd of people would be on the other side of that door.
If you’d like to read this page-turner, check the May-June Japanagram to see if you won a copy of THE AOSAWA MURDERS. All subscribers are automatically entered to win—if you’re not among them yet, click this button and sign up to enter.
How I pick the winners: On the last day of each month, I load all the email addresses of Japanagram subscribers into a random name picker on the Web and ask it to choose subscribers to match however many books I’m giving away that month. Then I publish the emails in the next day’s Japanagram (all emails obscured in a way so only the subscriber will be able to recognize it as their own, of course!)
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist
Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had