IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS: Death Among the Undead

Like the holiday displays at Hallmark Cards, Locked Room International has delivered the perfect Halloween murder mystery two months early. Publisher John Pugmire and translator Ho-Ling Wong have teamed up to unleash the latest example of shin honkaku mystery fiction on the English-speaking world. And this one is something extra special. It’s another debut novel along the lines of Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders or Alice Arisugawa’s The Maoi Island PuzzleDeath Among the Undead has launched the career of Mashiro Imamura, winning him the coveted Ayukawa Tetsuya Award and making him one of the best-selling ever mystery writers in Japan. Undead has already been adapted into a film, and no less a personage than Soji Shimada (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Murder in the Crooked House), who wrote one of the most informative forwards to a book of this type that I have so far read, calls this “a work of some importance.” 

We want to know what makes this book so scary . . .

So what has Imamura done that sets his book apart from the others? Per usual, we have a closed circle of suspects, most of them college students, with the oldest characters pushing thirty. We have a secluded mansion of most unusual architecture. (This one is shaped like a pistol.) We have a hazy scandal from the past haunting the lives and happiness of those in the present. We get not one, not two, but three locked room murders, with college students – college students! – so knowledgeable on the subject that we get another extended lecture, a la Dr. Fell, on the subject. Check, check, and double check! What could be so new, so experimental here, that it has paved the way for an unprecedented success for both the book and its author???

Oh, yeah.

Zombies.

Truth to tell, I have never liked zombies. I didn’t like the early incarnation – the victims of voodoo who shuffled around plantations, working ceaselessly without a will of their own, an uncomfortable reminder of the legacy of slavery that informs our nation. And then, when George Romero had the bright idea of giving these hulks a raving taste for blood (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”), I muttered, “No, thank you!” Just my luck, then, that zombies have become, quite literally, all the rage, and I’m ashamed to admit they have been on my mind during these pandemic days. Zombies and aliens! The aliens, you see, invented the COVID virus and brought it to Earth, while the vaccines turn us all into zombies. 

Good grief, I shouldn’t even joke about this! There are yahoos in the South who actually believe this stuff!!

Zombies lull you from a supine position and then strike . . .

Anyway, I’m glad I managed to put aside my distaste for walking corpses because Death Among the Undead is both great fun and a clever mystery. The basic premise is that the members of a university film club have gathered at the (pistol-shaped) mansion of one of their alumni to film a ghost story, and they have the ill-fortune to time their event when an incident of bio-terrorism is occurring at a nearby music festival. Worse luck: even hordes of flesh-munching monsters can’t keep a good murderer down. 

Imamura is really clever in the way he merges the horror and mystery genres here in service to crafting a fair-play whodunnit. As the bodies pile up, the question of whether they were dispatched via human agency or zombie is interwoven with all sorts of clues, both traditional and supernatural. And don’t worry, folks, if you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know much about the undead: staying down the hall from the locked-room expert is a zombie expert who delivers his own extended lecture on the subject.

That both these “experts” are ages 17 and 18, respectively, and have gleaned their knowledge from reading John Dickson Carr or watching all the Resident Evil movies is part of the charm of shin honkaku. It makes me smile a little – well, a lot, as when the kids find time between reinforcing barricades and wiping away the severed flesh of victims to ponder some light romance. But it also gives me hope that this genre is here to stay for a while, imbued as it is with a youthful zeal on the part of many new authors clamoring to win prizes and become best-sellers – all for a genre that has somewhat lost its luster in the modern West. 

A simple bite on the neck and the zombie’s infection is spread to the next victim . . .

As I mentioned, the book includes maps of all three floors of the house. There is also a cast of characters. These tools are invaluable to the Western reader. Honkaku characters are not known for standing out one from the other; all we have are the names and a few generic traits to go by. It took me a while to begin separating one member of the large cast from another, and I was frankly grateful to the zombies for eating a few of these people and making it easier for me to keep track. 

The only other thing I’ll say is that, while the zombies provide an appropriate “ick” factor, this is still very much a traditional murder mystery with all the trappings. We are teased with just enough information to explain the zombies’ presence, but the plot is never bogged down with the horror elements. And yet, the monsters do not merely provide a background, like the forest fire in The Siamese Twin Mystery or the flood in Goodnight, Irene. They become an integral part of the scheme of things; discovering how this is so is one of the main delights of Locked Room International’s latest triumph. 

Personally, however, I hope that this hybridization between the horror and mystery genres is only an occasional thing. I’ve lost my taste for the gruesome, and after reading this, I find I need to think happy thoughts. Fortunately, it’s September, and I’ve just received my Secret Santa assignment!! Time to think about Christmas!!!!!!

“Here, kitty, kitty . . . . “