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 . . . . “

14 thoughts on “IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS: Death Among the Undead

    1. I think it’s harder than one might realize to merge several genres together successfully, but Imamura gives us a mystery, a horror thriller, and a coming of age story, all of them good, with the latter two subservient to the first – as they should be here.

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  1. Glad you enjoyed this … as I can’t tolerate gruesome either, not a zombie fan, etc. Mine was delivered yesterday and I look forward to reading it on the strength of your view and that of TomCat.

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  2. I’m reminded that Moray Dalton combined the murder mystery with the apocalyptic novel and of course there’s the fun of Ellery and his Dad trying to solve a murder in a house about to be consumed by a raging forest fire. As the Delicious Dish ladies say, good times, fun!

    Come to think of it they could have had a locked room murder easily in Night of the Living Dead, they certainly had an enclosed location and that obnoxious middle-aged white guy was really asking to to get murdered. Of course he did finally get eaten by zombies, but it’s not quite the same.

    I’m not a huge zombie fan either, but I like Hammer Film Studio’s variant on the voodoo version in one of their films and I’ll always love Barbara and her brother and his Karloff impression in the graveyard in the first five minutes of Dead, before all hell breaks loose. for me that’s the best part of the film!

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    1. As long as there’s a certain fairness to the proceedings, the merging of genres is often delightful. Asimov had his fun with it, and I do love me some Burning Court! As for Romero, well, the first film was, for me, his best because of its relative subtlety and the shocks that came out of actual plot and character. It’s one of the only times we see a group of people unsure of what they’re dealing with, and we experience their growing horror (and other emotions) as they realize that nothing will ever be the same again. That mother wants her daughter under whatever circumstances she can get. That young woman wants to be reunited with her brother . . . until she is! And that ending is powerful on many levels. As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the canon was a gorefest. Not for me.

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  3. Thanks for the review! I’ve been a big fan of the book ever since I read it a few years ago, and I myself am not a fan of the horror genre myself either, but the way the zombies are used here to create such a unique closed circle situation is just brilliant. And you mentioning the maps reminded me I also like how dynamic the story remains because of the zombies: the map is constantly ‘updated’, with parts being taken over, people having to move rooms etc and these changes are integrated so cleverly with the mystery plot, it’s not something you often see in mystery novels.

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    1. SPOILERS: I purposely didn’t want to get into a lot of detail in my review because I think a lot of the pleasure here comes from the surprising ways in which the horror elements are incorporated into the mystery. I really enjoyed how the “setting“ kept transforming as the zombies encroached further and further into the humans’ territory and the inspired way in which the killer’s plan morphed along with it. It was a beautiful translation, too, Ho-Ling, and I’m pleased to be able to personally thank you for your part in making it available! ❤️

      What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?? (Too soon to ask?)

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      1. The next release of LRI is the English translation of the French novel À travers les murailles (Through the Walls) by Noel Vindry (1937)

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  4. Glad to hear a shining review for what has quickly become one of my most anticipated new GAD releases! The sheer amount of creativity and genre-bending in this one has piqued my curiosity (along with the locked room aspects,) and having very recently read The Decagon House Murders for the first time I am looking forward to reading a lot of shin honkaku in the near future, including this…

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    1. There are certain things you hope/expect to find in shin honkaku, and I was concerned that the zombies would crowd them out. Instead, the horror elements enhance the detection, and one couldn’t ask for more than that. I love Decagon House for the way it is both an homage to Christie and plays on her ideas in an original way. This is a different experience, but I think even after two of these you will recognize what constitutes good honkaku!

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  5. I bought into the hype, got this the day of release and have it lined up as my next read. I’ll eat up any and all shin honkaku ever since reading the exceptional Death in the House of Rain. Cast of characters, floor plans, diagrams, insanely elaborate and original locked room tricks. Perhaps even moreso than Carr, who gets bogged down in atmospherics, and Halter, whose clewing sometimes lets him down, these tick every conceivable box and give me exactly what I’m looking for from these books. A fun, focussed – and fair – murder puzzle. I’ve enjoyed every Ho Ling translated honkaku thus far and going by your review, which allayed some of my early misgivings about the incongruous zombie element, it looks like that streak is set to continue with DAtU. Though I may be a while getting to it, seeing as I just started the epic that is The Greek Coffin Mystery.

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    1. Just started?? So you haven’t gotten to the part where they open the coffin and find George Khalkis’ zombie??

      TGFM was my first Queen and my favorite for a long time. Queen’s prose is harder for me to read this days, but there’s a moment in the book that made a twelve-year-old scream out loud and worry his parents. I hope you enjoy it!

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