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.