Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Death Among the Undead

When in my browsing for a mystery to read, I came across Death Among the Undead, written by Imamura Mashiro, published in Japan in 2017, I didn't think I'd want to read it. Much as I've been loving the Japanese fair play mysteries I've been poring through, the idea for this one didn't grab me. Adding zombies to the classic locked-room/impossible crime setup seemed like it would have to involve cheating. The supernatural and iron-clad logic working together? How? What could the author do here to make this work while still following the rules dictated by a mystery form demanding a rational explanation for its solution? I was skeptical, but the praise for the book was so high, I became intrigued. I read that in Japan, the book turned into a phenomenon. A film adaptation resulted, as did a manga adaptation. And I saw a blurb that intrigued me, from Shoji Shimada no less, a master of Japanese whodunnits and the author of the great The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. He called Death Among the Undead "a work of great importance." Well...

I bought it.

And I found a superb introduction to the book written by Shimada, who I think, describing the novel, is worth quoting. He addresses the very reservations I had at first, and then he perfectly sums up what makes the novel work. He writes,

"At first sight, the concept of zombies might sound outrageous, but in Death Among the Undead their supernatural powers double, nay, triple the amount of entertainment the book provides. The almost manga-like presence of these beings brings thrills and suspense to the story, and provides unexpected new developments of the country house murder mystery we thought we knew inside-out. This is because Imamura simultaneously maintains the necessary rigor of the locked room mystery by making the zombies bound by strict rules governing their behavior and even their existence."

"Despite the rigor, the plot of Death Among the Undead does signal a revolutionary change for the mystery genre. The core elements of any classic murder mystery are the killer, the victim and the murder weapon, and the lines between these three elements are never crossed. Zombies, however, can change from one element to another. A zombie can be a killer, the victim and even a powerful murder weapon. Such a concept changes the very foundation of the mystery story, which is why Death Among the Undead is a masterpiece of the genre." 

Everything Shimada says here, I'm in total agreement with, and I too would consider Death Among the Undead a mystery masterpiece. 

The plot, in brief, involves a group of twelve students who decide to rent a boarding house in the mountains. A couple of these students are members of their school's Mystery Society, and one student, a young woman, is actually a brilliant and eccentric detective who has helped solve crimes in the past. There are levels of sexual tension in the group, and some among those gathered have done things in the past, in their relationships, that no human being should be proud of. The group's retreat starts well enough, but soon a nearby bioterrorism event results in the boarding house being surrounded by zombies. These are people in the remote area who, exposed to the biological agents unleashed by the terrorists, have turned into zombies. At first, the students repel the attacking horde by using swords and spears, but then a murder occurs in a room locked on the inside. As things appear, a human could not have made the bite marks that killed the victim -- only a zombie could have made such marks -- but on the other hand, a zombie could not have gotten into the room to do the biting. What's going on?

I will say no more about the plot, other than that more murders occur and the bafflement I experienced was complete and utterly enjoyable. The book reads lightning fast and also has a good deal of humor despite the grimness of the situation the students find themselves in. Since a few of the characters are mystery fanatics themselves, the novel also has the meta-mystery quality a lot of these Japanese fair play mysteries have. Discussions about mystery stories and what the rules are and how this could be happening in "real life" and how to apply mystery novel rules to a situation involving zombie creatures abound. They are most entertaining discussions, as is the abundance of pure action in the novel, scenes with the salivating zombies launching their assaults on the besieged humans. There is even, in a charming way, romance. This is a book in which every single thing works and the plot marches forward relentlessly, making it very hard for you as a reader to put the book aside. And to cap it all off, as Shimada implies, there is a solution of absolute rigor that develops from the clues and situations the reader has been presented with. It's a marvel, with zero cheating, and it comes in the classic way, with the main investigating characters making connections and deductions built on pure logic, zombies or no zombies.

Death Among the Undead is a great and innovative mystery novel, and as a person who's been reading mysteries for about 50 years, I really would place it among my all-time favorites. It's ingenious and pure fun. And to think that this was the author's debut novel!

But PS: Imamura has a follow-up, called Death Within the Evil Eye, and so, since I now currently happen to have a two-week vacation from work, during which I'll be traveling a little, with time to read more than usual, maybe even on a beach, I think I know what I'll be sinking into next.

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