Fourteen years and two disappointing sequels after the fact, it might be difficult to believe just how wild people went for the Matt Reeves-directed monster movie Cloverfield (2008) when it was first released. And I was reminded of that film when reading Death Among the Undead (2017, tr. 2021) by Masahiro Imamura for two reasons: firstly because of the time taken in both to ground the upcoming fantastical elements in enjoyably relatable worlds, and secondly because I cannot help but feel, now as then, that the praise heaped on both might be slightly overdone.
As a fan of impossible crimes, zombies, and genre-hopping — if the latter two are your bag, check out the hugely enjoyable superheroes/zombies hybrid Ex-Heroes (2010) by Peter Clines — Imamura’s novel should be tailor-made for me. A group of university students travelling to an isolated villa, only to be caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, only for said zombies to then apparently enter the villa and kill two people before apparently writing notes and/or leaving quietly whence they came, should be manna from heaven, not least because the ‘rules’ that govern murder mysteries extend so neatly into other genres and so can be well-observed here. For me, Imamura falls down not so much in the commission of some ingeniously-conceived and executed murders, but in the establishment of those rules and their communication to the reader so that we might be able to play along at home.
Imamura’s love for the trappings of the impossible crime subgenre and the zombie-as-horrror-icon shines through, with treatises on both from, repsectively, our narrator Yuzuru Hamura and horror movie buff Mitsuru Shigemoto:
“Zombies are not simply grotesque, horrifying monsters any more. They are beings that can be used to cast a light on so many themes: the sin of man, economic class differences, the strong and the weak, or the tragedy of how friends and family can turn into enemies in the blink of an eye. Zombies are projections of our own egos and minds.”
Since our ostensible detective Hiruko Kenzaki has “taken on many difficult and downright inexplicable cases that even the police couldn’t handle, and managed to solve them with her matchless powers of reasoning” but knows nothing of fictional detection on the page or screen, Hamura is also full of meta delights as he allows Imamura to hold forth on the trappings of the various subgenres and the tropes we might come to expect were these people characters in a novel (nudge, nudge). These playful elements are sheer delight: see Hamura thinking up tentative titles for cases he has been involved in solving with his fellow member (singular) of the university’s Mystery Society, as well as some wonderfully wry reflections that come through in narration:
Beyond the barricade, I could make out the figures of the zombies who were still foolishly slamming their bodies against the barricade, tumbling and falling down the stairs again. It was like a commercial to show off the sturdiness of the furniture. Let’s hope it was made in Japan.
Alas, in other regards, the book is less successful. It takes 50 pages to introduce everyone, only for Hamura to reflect that “whenever I read mystery novels, I always forget the names of the characters, and have to go back to the list on the front page” so Kenzaki lists them all again as if it’s been difficult to remember who everyone is (and there is a character list in this, so why bother…?). And then the zombies show up ten pages later and kill solidly a third of these characters anyway. And, yes, it might be playfulness, but there’s really so little to any of these characters that it’s not like a third of the book needed to be given over to teenage shenanigans and establishing how boo-hiss-bad some of them are. The opening of Cloverfield was too long, too — bring on the monster(s) dude, that’s why we’re here!
More frustratingly, as much of an expert as Shigemoto is in the zombie of popular culture, it’s never established how much of what those (fictional) zombies are capable of applies to these (factual) zombies. The innovation of including zombies in a locked-room universe (or vice versa, I suppose) is ingenious, but the zombies themselves are dismissed with a sort of “Yeah, you know how zombies work…” attitude that’s infuriating. Imamura cites a range of movies and video games, but all of them have different rules and expectations — hell, even within the ‘official’ George A. Romero X of the Dead (1968-2007) films the rules change: his zombies starting out mindless and then film-by-film achieving a degree of intelligence that supersedes some of the people I’ve met. We’re also never explicitly told (or given the chance to figure out) crucial details like how the zombie virus spreads in Imamura’s universe, or how quickly one becomes a zombie…and these things are crucial to accepting some of the solutions given.
There’s one breathlessly subtle and brilliant piece of misdirection involving the location of a character that is sublime, and retrospectively raises a moral implication far more interesting than anything happening with the shambling hordes outside (and, later inside) the building. And, as I say, the first two deaths are explained away ingeniously — though, I dunno if they’re really impossible, since there’s another explanation that could work for the first (you’d need to exclude some behaviour on behalf of The Horde first…), and the second hinges on a wonderfully-explained unlikelihood that’s merely very, very unlikely. Alas, before these clever solutions we get characters who are broad ciphers firing ideas back and forth at each other that comes across as rather more Early Ellery Queen than I like: intelligent, yes, but dust-dry.
I also found myself in the unusual situation of knowing precisely who had died — no referring to the front of the book for me! — while also not being entirely sure who was still alive, so when the killer was eventually pointed out my reaction was more “Oh, yeah, they’re still in this” than “Whhhhaaaaaaatt?!?!”. The similarly dry characters of The Decagon House Murders (1987, tr. 2015) by Yukito Ayatsuji and The Moai Island Puzzle (1989, tr. 2016) by Alice Arisugawa imposed themselves on my memory far more clearly than these silhouettes, so don’t dismiss this as merely a facet of shin honkaku, and I guess the resulting lack of engagement is at least in part down to just how much these people really just felt like names with dialogue attached, 50 page introductory salvo or no.
So, well, Death Among the Undead presented to me far more of a mixed bag than others seem to have opened. There’s wonderful insight in how Imamura spots the potential for straddling genre lines, and I can understand that concept alone being thrilling to anyone suffering from genre fatigue, but the thing with being in two genres is that you must address the expectations of both of them and that causes problems when not done. Others have read and loved this, though, so there’s also that to consider. Still, one thing we can agree on to close: surely the disclaimer on the copyright page, with the boilerplate “Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” could have added an “or undead” before that second comma, no?
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: 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.
John @ Countdown John’s Christie Journal: This an absolute triumph and a reminder that the Golden Age tradition is alive and well for those writers who choose to embrace it and is not limited by time, place, or even genre itself.