Sunday, November 25, 2018

Crawling with Zombies

"They're just dead flesh, and dangerous."
"Night of the Living Dead"

Most of the Japanese books I have, are in the so-called bunko format: A6-format pockets which are both small and relatively cheap, yet still printed on reasonably good paper. While there are also novels which are printed right away in the bunko format, new novels are usually first printed in large hardcover or softcover format at a higher price point, and after three or four years, the novel is reprinted/replaced in the bunko format, which is usually half the price and the physical size. So often, I hear all kinds of great things about newly released novels but I still choose to wait a few years for the bunko release. I had been eyeing Aosaki Yuugo's Taiikukan no Satsujin since its release in 2012 for example, but waited until it was released as a bunko in 2015.

Sometimes, this wait can be excruciating however. Case in point: 2017's Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead"). If you had to name one novel that made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction, it would be this debut novel by Imamura Masahiro released last year. For Imamura managed to accomplish something nobody had done before, with his very first novel: take the number one spot in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi, Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best 10 and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings. This was the first time anyone had managed to grab the grand spot of these three annual mystery fiction rankings. These awards are all backed by different publishers, and each determine their rankings differently based on votes of critics/authors/readers, so it was no wonder nobody before had ever managed to come in at no. 1 in all three rankings. The novel alsomade off with the Honkaku Mystery Award by the way, meaning it was extremely well-received among all kinds of readers of mystery ficton. And yet I was planning to wait patiently for the bunko release, no matter how much I wanted to read the book. That is, until I came across a generous cashback campaign this week which returned half the price in store credit. And I am glad to say that Shijinsou no Satsujin is indeed one of the most entertaining mystery novels I've read this year!

Narrator Hamura Yuzuru is a college freshman who is drafted by Akechi Kyousuke into the Shinkou University Mystery Fiction Club (not to be confused with the Mystery Fiction Research Club). Akechi is not only the president of the club (which now has two members), he's also an aspiring detective who has solved a case or two on campus, earning him the nickname of "the Holmes of Shinkou". The two learn that the university's Film Club has received a mysterious note with the message "Who will be the next sacrifice?", which seems to be related to the club's annual trip to a countryside hotel, where this year, they'll shoot a short Blair Witch-type horror film as part of their club activities. Hamura and Akechi are quite surprised when they are invited by Kenzaki Hiruko to come along with this trip. Second year student Hiruko has solved several criminal cases in the past and has even been awarded by the police for her exploits, though she has kept that all a secret and it's only through his connections that Akechi knows about this. Hiruko isn't a member of either the Film or Drama Clubs, but as many members didn't want to go this year because of the mysterious letter, she's been invited to make up for the female numbers (the annual Film Club trip is also an excuse to get hooked up), and Hamura and Akechi are her tagalongs.

The Violet Villa used to be a private holiday villa overlooking Lake Sabea, owned by the parents of one of the graduated members of the Film Club. They later had it renovated into a little hotel, and now the Shinkou University Film Club can stay there for free for their summer trip, while the son of the owners and his friends also come down to meet the current Film Club members (and try to get lucky with the female members). The first day is supposed to end with a barbeque dinner and a 'test of courage', where they'll visit a creepy shrine in boy-girl pairs, but this game is horribly interrupted when the group is suddenly assaulted by... a horde of zombies! Not everyone makes it back alive to the Violet Villa, and the group of survivors has no choice but to flee up to the upper two floors of the hotel and barricade themselves against the waves of zombies waiting for them below. Cut off from the outside world, the survivors make plans on how to keep the zombies downstairs until they're saved, but while the news on television warned people to look out and be on their guard for the "strange" epidemic that started at a local music festival, the survivors couldn't have known that the zombies weren't the only danger in the hotel. In the early hours of the following morning, the Film Club's president is found dead in his room and the way his face and body had been mutilated by horrible biting marks, leaves little doubt that his death came by the hands of a zombie, but there are also several problems to this conclusion: while only a zombie could've committed the murder in such a horrible way, only a human could've performed feats like somehow opening the locked hotel room and leaving mysterious handwritten threatening notes in and outside the room! Even supposing a zombie did commit the murder on its own, how did they get through the barricade and out again without anyone noticing!? And this isn't the only violent murder to occur inside the Violet Villa while the zombies are coming closer and closer in Imamura Masahiro's Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead", 2017).

So I knew of this novel since last year, but I hadn't actually read up on the story, so imagine how surprised I was when I came to the part zombies appeared in the story! Imamura comes up with a unique way to created a closed circle situation, as in this novel, the characters aren't cut off from the outside world due to storms or broken bridges, but zombies (and jammers and media blocks by the authorities to prevent people from spreading panic and false information on social media). There are some short segments that "explain" the how and why of the zombie attack, but don't mind that too much: it's all an excuse to create a unique closed circle situation for a mystery novel, and one that works really well too!


The book opens with the three-storied floorplan of the hotel and I think it kinda symbolizes how dynamic this story actually is. When you first open the book, you might read through the character list and try to memorize where everyone is sleeping in the hotel, but once the zombies come, you can forget everything. Corridors are barricaded and closed off, people are eaten by zombies, others are murdered and everyone has to move to other rooms or to other floors as the zombies slowly break through the various lines of defense and available space becomes less and less. In your mind, you're constantly updating the 'map' as circumstances change. A lot happens in Shijinsou no Satsujin and you certainly can't accuse it of being a boring mystery novel with long investigation scenes in the middle, because this is a novel that uses the form of the zombie panic movie to not only bring thrilling scenes from start to finish, but also to force frequent changes on the circumstances that help deepening the core mystery plot, for example by creating siutations where characters have to move to other rooms or by making some parts of the villa inaccessible after a while, which are all elements that will later be used in determining the culprit.

It's in this ever-changing locale that we see multiple impossible murders occur. These murders too make fantastic use of the zombie setting: one of the main problems the detectives face in this novel is the question of how and why these murders were committed, as all the murders show signs of both zombie, and human action: the horrible way in which the murders are committed could only be attributed to the zombies, and yet there's also a human hand detectable, but how could one person direct the zombies without endangering themselves or the other people? Besides an "orthodox" locked room murder, there's also a murder where the victim was dragged outside of their room, which was obviously locked from the inside, so a different type of impossible murder. What makes this novel so fun is that all the murders only work because the story's set during a sudden zombie attack. These murders could not possibly have worked if the story had been set in a "normal" world, without zombies. While the zombies are not completely explained within this work, Imamura carefully hints at certain conditions and characteristics of the zombies in this novel which you'll need to solve the case, and Imamura skillfully utilizes the zombies to create unique murder situations. As an example of how to do a good supernatural/fantasy mystery novel, Shijinsou no Satsujin gets very high marks (though I have to add that Shijinsou no Satsujin does not feel really fantasy-like, it's fairly realistic. Save for the zombies).

And while some might be turned off by zombies in a mystery novel, the way the murders are solved in Shijinsou no Satsujin show it's definitely a true, puzzle plot mystery that is intricately planned out and fair to the reader. Despite the unrealistic plot device of zombies, Imamura does a great job at both clewing and defining the capabilities of the zombies and nobody could ever accuse of him of being unfair to the reader. The mystery solving is quite Queen-like, in the sense that the deductions revolve much around physical evidence and "this culprit did this, which means they must have also been here or done that, and therefore..." lines of thought, but keeping in line with the dynamic of the zombie panic story, these deductions are never too long, and quite to the point, and while Shijinsou no Satsujin certainly isn't a simple mystery to solve, it's certainly solvable without having to keep precise notes. There is one moment that contains a very damning piece of evidence in regards to the identity of the culprit that might feel a bit unfair, I admit, but that's more in the sense of "I'd have wanted some psychological explanation for that" than really "Wait, that came out of nowhere", as it is something is definitely properly hinted at, and the implicitions are clear, even if you don't want to believe it at first.

Shijinsou no Satsujin is thus a very entertaining debut work by Imamura, that manages to mix the zombie panic genre in a wonderful manner with a classic puzzle plot locked room mystery. The unique closed circle situation and the inspired way in which zombies are utilized in the mystery plot are fantastic and I can't wait for Imamura's sequel to this novel, which was announced a while ago! Definitely a contender of one of my best reads this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘 『屍人荘の殺人』

12 comments :

  1. So we have an isolated location with zombies and impossible murders? Sounds like Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way, but with actual zombies roaming around! Please tell me The Murders in the Villa of the Dead is a serious candidate for one of your future translations.

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    1. Aaaand I still haven't read that one (yes, I know I should). I really like this novel though as the zombies are "real" and necessary for this plot to work. Can't even imagine what the sequel will do. It could either go with zombies again, or another unique way to create a closed circle...

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    2. "Please tell me The Murders in the Villa of the Dead is a serious candidate for one of your future translations."
      Ho-Ling can correct me, but looking at LRI's honkaku catalogue, I'd say they're prioritizing the translation of canonized works by famous authors. Not that this one isn't famous, but it's not,err, a classic yet. Again, based on LRI's output, I don't think we'll see a 2010s work from LRI any time soon unless it by a known author like Soji Shimada or something. Is this about right, Ho-Ling?

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    3. I'm just a translator, so I can't comment on whatever LRI's policies may be (´・ω・`)

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  2. I take it that the name of the villa (and the situation with university students)are referencing Ayukawa Tetsuya's 'Villa Lilac Case' (りら荘事件). It looks like the author is making joke references to classic mysteries (most of which I'm doubtless missing).

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    1. Ah, no, the real name of the hotel is 紫湛荘 which is pronounced the same as 屍人荘. I just went with Violet because I like alliteration.

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  3. Didn't Detective Conan feauture a similar storyline like this? I remember seeing it in the anime version.The Zombie setting was there too,but that turned out to be fake.So did Gosho Aoyama got inspired by this novel or was it the other way round?

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    1. Neither way, I'd think. Zombie-related content has been **extremely** popular the last few years all over the world in general (i.e. The Walking Dead, Train to Busan and much, much more).

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  4. This sounds INSANE in the best possible way. While I don't see it fitting with LRI's classical honkaku novels, I could imagine a publisher like Vertical picking it up and selling well due to its hyper-absurd yet coolly logical premise.

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    1. Yeah, considering the "timely" concept of zombies, I could really see this one catching on widely.

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  5. Have you considered doing a list of your favorite impossible mysteries like that of Tomcat's? I'm curious what your picks will be, given that you can access many more honkaku than the usual English-only blog

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    1. Not a big fan of making lists actually! (see: my lazy end-of-year lists) And unlike most other mystery bloggers, I also don't have a special interest in impossible mysteries, so I don't really keep tabs on them ^^'

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