9/7/21

Death Among the Undead (2017) by Masahiro Imamura

Back in late 2018, Ho-Ling Wong posted an intriguing review of Masahiro Imamura's debut novel, Shijinso no satsujin (The Murders in the Villa of the Dead, 2017), which "made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction" as it swooped the number one spots in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi, Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best 10 and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings – marking "the first time anyone had managed to grab the grand spot of these three annual mystery fiction rankings." There's a good reason why the book was a smashing success in Japan spawning "a multimedia franchise" with manga and live-action adaptations. 

Masahiro Imamura accomplished something in his debut that many have attempted, but only few have succeeded in doing. The Murders in the Villa of the Dead blurs the lines between two different genre, namely the detective and horror story, without corrupting or tainting the integrity of either. The book impressively juggles the traditional locked room mystery with an actual zombie outbreak, which isolated the characters to the titular villa and created one of the most original closed-circle situations on record!

So, naturally, I've been banging on about the book getting translated ever since and half-expected Pushkin Vertigo would eventually pick it up, but it was John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, who scooped up the publishing rights – getting out an English translation quicker than I could have asked for. Ho-Ling Wong translated The Murders in the Villa of the Dead, retitled Death Among the Undead, which has a must-read introduction by the "God of Mystery," Soji Shimada. A jealousy-inducing introduction as Shimada goes over the history of the Japanese detective story and particular how "the youngsters belonging to the university mystery clubs" rebelled against the domineering social school of crime fiction. This is now known as the beginning of the shin honkaku boom in Japan. A movement that completely rejuvenated the traditional, plot-oriented detective story and mystery fans everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to them.

However, while the West only recently have gotten a taste of the great shin honkaku school, the movement has been dominant in Japan for decades and readers "yearned for the kind of impetus" that Yukito Ayatsuji's Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) had created. Death Among the Undead gave expression to that yearning and might very well be the signal of "a revolutionary change for the mystery genre" in which authors look to fantastical elements, like "country house murder mysteries which utilize artificial elements" or zombies, to add something new and original to the core-puzzles of their novels. This is both amazing and slightly depressing. I'm poking here through the remains of the brief flareups of the Dutch detective story, while Japan is about to enter their Third Golden Age. 

Death Among the Undead forced that first step towards new grounds, like the shin honkaku movement did in the past, but the story begins as a typical, shin honkaku-style detective story with a university student as the narrator, Yuzuru Hamura – who's loves traditional detective fiction. So he tried to join the Shinkō University's Mystery Club, but its members were more interested in Young Adult fiction and used to club as an excuse to socialize. However, there's a second, unofficial and one-man mystery club on campus run by a third-year student. Kyōsuke Akechi is the president of the Mystery Society and aspires to be Great Detective, known as "The Holmes of Shinkō," who recruits Hamura as his Watson. Akechi and Hamura go around campus solving cases (like "The Case of the Leaked Theology Tests") or looking for lost cats as a part-time job for the Tanuma Detective Agency. Akechi always hoped something truly interesting and worthy would occur around him, but he was not content to wait until something turned up and had the habit to jump in on his own. This is why he has set his eyes on the Film Club's summer trip.

The Film Club has planned a trip to the Villa Violet, a private boarding house, situated near Lake Sabea in S Prefecture where they want to shoot a short, POV-style horror movie, but the trip is also "what some might call a group dating party" – which is why there not too keen on outsiders trying to horn in. A group of students gathering at a boarding house in the summer strikes Akechi as "the perfect place for some incident to occur," but he gets turned down several times. No outsiders! This changes when a note is found in club room asking "who will be the sacrifice this year?" A reference to a female club member committing suicide after their previous summer trip. Like I said, the story starts out like a fairly typical, neo-orthodox detective story. This could easily have been the premise of a story from The Kindaichi Case Files (The Legendary Vampire Murders comes to mind).

So there are a few cancellations and the persistent Akechi is approached by a second-year student, Hiruko Kenzaki, who offers Akechi and Hamura to join them after all. Otherwise, the trip might be canceled all together. What makes her deal so curious, is that they learn she's a detective "who has taken on many difficult and downright inexplicable cases that even the police couldn't handle." Kenzaki solved those cases with her "matchless powers of reasoning," but she comes from an illustrious family and her involvement is covered up with "strict restraints" on the media. So could there anything behind her arranging a place for them on the trip?

Akechi and Hamura become the outsiders in a group comprising of Film and Drama Club members, university alumni's and the manager of the Villa Violet, but, despite the alumni's turning out to be unpleasant characters, there's nothing to suggest all hell is about to break loose. Well, they discover that their smartphones have no signal and can't connect to the internet. There's the sound of ambulance sirens in the distance, helicopters in formation flying over and a brilliant, glowing aura behind the mountains. But everyone assumed that the Sabea Rock Festival was getting wild. Until they ventured out to explore an abandoned hotel in couples on "a Trial of Courage dare." This is where the story becomes unapologetically awesome!

While out in the dark, they can make out several figures descending the mountainside, swaying from side to side, dragging their feet and moaning until they were close enough for the lamp posts to illuminate "about a dozen swaying figures" coming their way – exposing their dark, bloodstained faces and torn clothing. And "the pungent, rotten smell of blood, grease and more." Obviously, these torn creatures are no extras hired to scare them and no-sold a rock thrown at its face. So they left cartoon smoke as they run back to the Villa Violet, but not everyone makes it back as what remains of the group barricade themselves inside. That one line, "things don't always go right," shows why the best storytellers today can be found in Japan.

They hear on the news that there was a possible bio-terror attack at the Rock Festival and the police has sealed off the entire area, but the news is evidently censored and communication cut-off to prevent mass panic. So now they have to survive until (hopefully) rescue comes, but one of them sees "a sign from heaven" in "the appearance of the walking dead" and a change to exact revenge. And the next day, one of the survivors is found dead under gruesome, hard to explain circumstances.

President of the Film Club, Ayumu Shindō, is found dead in his locked room and his death had not been a pleasant one. There were parts of his body that had been bitten off and his face had been gnawed all over, but nobody else had been in the gory, blood-drenched room and the balcony looked down on "the hordes of zombies swarming the grounds below." But they also find a folded piece of paper with "let's eat" scrawled on it. So there you have, what the story calls, "an unprecedented locked room mystery," because only a human could have possibly entered the room, but nobody "showed signs of having bitten Shindō to death." On the other hand, a zombie could have killed him, but "the possibility of a zombie penetrating the double-layered locked room, by accident or coincidence, is zero." Possibilities are explored through a locked room lecture, discussing fictional zombies and analyzing their own homegrown zombie hoard.

Their "brain only seems capable of sending simple orders" and "the coordination of their limbs is so bad they can't even run," easily losing their balance and struggling with obstacles, but they have "unlimited stamina" and feel no pain – which reduce the barricades to temporary obstacles. More importantly, they don't attack human, or each other, to eat, but to infect the living and reproduce. Anyone who's bitten gets infected, dies and rises again as a fully fleshed out zombie. Imamura brilliantly and logically integrated what the zombies can, and can't do, with the plot and story's setting, but how and where the zombies come into play is one of the key-pieces of the puzzle. Not just with the first murder. There's a second, equally gruesome murder in the elevator, where someone has been bitten to death and got his head smashed to a pulp, which is more of a how-was-it-done than an impossible crime. But the solution is ingenious! The third, very late murder is somewhat glossed over, as the body is impossible to reach, but the presence of zombies opened the door to an original twist on an old dodge.

Purely as a traditional, plot-driven detective novel, Death Among the Undead can stand with the best of its kind, past and present, but the story makes a point not to ignore the whydunit angle. Not merely the murderer's motive, but why the murderer employed such dangerous and high-risk methods. The trickery behind the murders can eventually be explained, but here it raises the question why such methods were employed. I really liked the dark duality the solution exposed between the intellectual and emotional facets of both the murders and murderer, which I thought was nicely complemented by an interesting and grim piece of commentary on the murder-magnet trope. I could go on, and on, praising the book, but there's one small detail that bugged me and it would be unfair to ignore or gloss over it.

Masahiro Imamura's succeeded in injecting zombies in a traditional detective story without killing it, but it came with a noticeable side effect. The characters took a more proactive approach to the murders than to the more pressing situation of hundreds of zombies, breaking down the barricades, slowly taking over the villa – floor by floor. They're rather passive when it comes to the zombies with a wait and hope for the best attitude and while coming up with all kinds of false-solutions to the murders, nobody is trying to figure out a way to escape from the villa to their van. Sure, they complain about the rope-ladder or a rope made out of bed sheets, but you're in the epicenter of a small, localized zombie apocalypse. What did they expect? A rooftop slip-and-slide? The zombies standing outside the villa can, theoretically, be bypassed. Just imagine the limited number of zombies as being water and Villa Violet a giant sluice. Eventually, they'll begin flooding the house, but you have control and slowdown the flood by using everything in the house to create either obstacles or a pathway. When one side of the villa has (mostly) cleared of zombies, they can slide down from a balcony, window or even the rooftop from the rope-ladder or bed sheets. And run to the van like the devil is on their heels. I was also slightly annoyed that nobody stumbled to the idea to sharpen the blunted, decorative swords and spears. This would have spared a little muscle power fighting an undead creature whose only advantage is unlimited stamina.

Nonetheless, this minor complaint is nothing to the detriment of the threat these terrifying creatures pose to the people trapped inside the villa. I do not fear Dracula, Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, but zombies never fail to unnerve me in how they can turn friends and family "into enemies in the blink of an eye." Imamura's zombies drive that point home very effectively. This is why an actual zombie apocalypse wouldn't kill us as a society or civilization. It would be the psychological aftermath that would neck us. Particularly if a zombie virus is permanent and turns everyone who dies into a zombie. Just imagine what that would do to people! I think I prefer to deal with malevolent ghosts or demonic children.

So, to draw this overlong and rambling review to a close, Death Among the Undead is close to perfect as a hybrid-mystery novel and has a plot bubbling with exciting new ideas and the spirit of exploration, which earned it a place alongside Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) as a rare classic of its kind. Simply put, the blast I had with Death Among the Undead could have wiped out the dinosaurs a second time. My best and favorite read of 2021! I sincerely hope we can look forward to an English translation of the sequel, Magan no hako no satsujin (The Murders in the Box of the Devil Eye, 2019), in 2022.

On a last, somewhat related note: I didn't want to wait too long with posting my review of this modern masterpiece and crammed as early as possible in my posting schedule. This came at the expense of yesterday's review of three short stories by Joseph Commings. So, if you have missed it, give it a look.

18 comments:

  1. I picked this up pretty much as soon as it came out so I am happy to read that it is as good as I hoped. It sounds like a great read and I am looking forward to getting to it soon!

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    1. Good is an understatement. You have something truly excellent and different, yet very familiar, to look forward to. Hopefully, Masahiro Imamura becomes a LRI regular. I want more of this. Much, much more!

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  2. I'm glad that you enjoyed this so much! Often, when I read a book that I've really looked forward to, there's a little worry in the back of my mind that I'll have built it up too much, and it very much seems that that didn't happen to you. And your enthusiasm is catching, as I for one am now even more excited to read it!

    Given the hybridised mysteries we've seen with science fiction and fantasy, it's nice to see the horror genre get its turn. It presents so many untapped possibilities, and elements of horror have been an ever present ingredient in mystery fiction, so a full-on Frankenstein's monster fusion of the two seems to have been inevitable. It'll be interesting to see what comes of this down the line.

    I'm with you on not finding most horror movie monsters particularly frightening, and personally, that even extends to zombies, but this novel does still have one of the ones that do freak me out. Specifically, the idea of a contagion. Who knows how all it spreads or how persistent it is in the ground, air, or water? What if you somehow infect someone close to you? Pure nightmare fuel. Of course, that's one horror trope that has turned out to be rather closer to reality than I would have liked...

    Finally, (and boy am I rambling on) could the passivity in the face of a zombie onslaught be derived, intentional or not, from The Siamese Twin Mystery? In that one, it's more because there's nothing you can do against a wildfire, but given the level of influence Queen has on the Japanese mystery, I wonder if Imamura was inspired by it. Perhaps he wanted a similar atmosphere, but forgot to account for the fact that the zombies present a more dynamic threat?

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    1. Yes, I was a little worried going about my own expectations, but I got the feeling from Ho-Ling's review Death Among the Undead could very well be the real think, which is why I kept banging on about it. I was right. Again.

      I don't think The Siamese Twin Mystery directly influenced Death Among the Undead, because the closed-circle situation is so popular in Japan that it became part of the shin honkaku formula. That's why Imamura decided to throw in some real zombies to shake some life back into the thing. It worked!

      "...and elements of horror have been an ever present ingredient in mystery fiction, so a full-on Frankenstein's monster fusion of the two seems to have been inevitable."

      Horror gave the detective story its heartbeat when Edgar Allan Poe buried one of its spare hearts beneath the floorboards of the locked room mystery.

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  3. Wow, that's fast. Thanks for the review, and happy you liked the book! You mentioned many times on my blog you wanted to read this one, so there was always the risk the book would fail to meet expectations build up over the years ^^' But going over the text again now for the translation, I really fell in love with the book again myself, it's plotted so neatly and there are so many brilliant clewing moments. If you ever have the opportunity to see the movie, definitely do. It's simplified a bit, but stil a great adaptation.

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    1. That possibility was in the back of my head, but I began to gush so much raw enthusiasm that I didn't want queue the review for several months. After all, this is the birth of a modern classic!

      Fantastic job on the translation and might seek out the movie. Just to have an excuse to enjoy the story all over again.

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  4. I am lucky to have read this title last year, because a publisher in my country decided to randomly translate this out of nowhere. But I am glad that this book has finally reached a wider audience. This is indeed one of the most satisfying mystery novel I have read in recent years. I especially enjoyed the second murder, which I thought was very clever.

    Having said that, I do wonder whether keeping the 'zombie' plot as a surprise might enhance the reading experience? I remember reading somewhere that a judge of the mystery contest in Japan said that he was really surprised when the zombie appeared, presumably because at that time he does not have any knowledge of what the story is about. Though I can see the pros that revealing from the beginning that actual zombies are involved in the story might be good to prepare the western audience, so that they know what they are getting into, since this hybrid mystery genre is still a pretty new and foreign concept.

    Finally, I do like the concept of 'hybrid mystery'. I have also been reading Ho-ling's reviews, it seems like there are more and more examples of this genre, combining traditional mystery plots with fairy tales, time-travel, etc. I hope we see a lot more of these translated. Also, I really hope this novel is successful, so that we can get a translation of the sequel and the third novel in this series. Thank you Ho-ling, Locked Room International, and also Tomcat for persistently requesting this book to be translated.

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    1. You would be surprised how long hybrid mysteries have been around and the only foreign thing about them is their strong affinity with science-fiction. Manly Wade Wellman's 1942 Devil's Planet is one of the earliest examples I've come across (locked room mystery on Mars) closely followed by John Russell Fearn (who almost specialized in them) and Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, but, more often than not, the quality is not there. Asimov and Imamura are the exceptions to the rule.

      Yes, the zombies would make for a great surprise, but their point of being there is that story is a fair play mystery in spite of the zombies. So I understand why they're advertised.

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    2. Ah, yes I also love 'The Cave of Steel' and 'The Naked Sun'. I personally hope that they are adapted into movie someday.

      On another note, there is actually another famous award-winning zombie-related honkaku mystery: 'Death of the Living Dead' by Masaya Yamaguchi. If I recall correctly, the author has stated in his twitter that the novel has actually been completely translated into English. However, he is still looking for somebody to publish it. I hope LRI or other publisher consider to pick it up someday. Ho-ling also gave a pretty good review of the novel in the past.

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    3. Just skimmed over the review you mentioned and Death of the Living Dead would make for a fitting follow up to Death Among the Undead, but doubt LRI is going to publish two zombie mysteries back-to-back. But he could publish the translation independently to see where it goes. We have to wait and see, I suppose.

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  5. My review is at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4219673703

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  6. I watched the movie and the actors have done a great job,I was watching keiji yugami(it's a fun drama,you should watch it and also the the alibi breaker by keishi yusuke),and fortunately to my surprise I found the movie(I didn't knew that there is an adaptation,the impossible crime were good and the elevator one was excellent,I never thought that it will be translated so soon!!,other books of immamura are as good.hope we will read them soon too,wish LRI GROW WORLDWIDE WITH MILLONS OF READER ,SO WE COULD GET MORE AND MORE.

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    1. Ho-Ling and John really made short work of getting the book translated, published and giving me hope that we'll be getting Imamura's The Murders in the Box of the Devil Eye sometime in 2022 or 2023. We really need more Japanese detective fiction translated. On that note, you might like to know Seishi Yokozimo's Village of the Eight Graves will be published later this year by Pushkin Vertigo followed by Gokumon Island in March next year. So we're slowly catching up to Ho-Ling. :D

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    2. Great news!,but I was so tempted to read yokomizo that I read the devil comes playing flute in Japanese,though mine is still a begginer level but with help of mentor and internet I complete it.it features an impossible crime but the best tging is the atmosphere.i have read other Japanese authors and frequently translate short stories but none of them is any close in atmosphere to yokomizo.

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    3. It seems Vertigo is sticking with Yokomizo for the time being. So perhaps we'll get a translation of The Devil Came Playing the Flute after 2022. Here's hoping!

      i have read other Japanese authors and frequently translate short stories but none of them is any close in atmosphere to yokomizo.

      From my small sampling, Yokomizo really was Japan's answer to John Dickson Carr.

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  7. I follow your blog closely for the last few years and enjoy your reviews / recommendations including leveraging the Muniments Room archive of your posts.

    It has been awhile since I have seen you so enthusiastic about a book. This one sounds great. Mine is to be delivered tomorrow and I am keen to read it.

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    1. Thanks, Scott! I'm going to update the Muniment Room sometime next week with all the reviews from the past month. This is one is really worth getting excited over as you'll find for yourself when you read it. I'm sure you'll love it.

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