Saturday, March 8, 2014

After the Funeral


"Fist of the North Star"

When I left Kyoto about one year ago, I had a huge stack of unread books I sent back home (they arrived quite a bit later though). Some of them, I had bought especially to send back and read here, some books I had bought earlier, but never managed to finish before my return. So some books have waiting to be read for over a year now (going by the picture in this post, I see at least one book has been waiting for about two years now!) The number of unread books is, even after a year of reading, still two digits, but I'm finally starting to see the end of the stack... When I pulled today's book from the bookcase earlier three days ago, I found a bookmark which said I had already read around hundred pages, and I could recall the contents vaguely, but I have no idea at all about when I am supposed to have read those pages. Certainly not the last three months, but a half year ago? A year ago? Even before I left Japan? I have no inkling of when this happened!

Just outside Marbletown, New England, lies the Smile Cemetery. Smiley Barleycorn did not abandon the family business when he left the home country and under his supervision, the Smile Cemetery grew to a highly successful business. But old Smiley is also nearing his own death now, and the whole family is prepared for the worse the following few days. Smiley's grandson, Francis (nicknamed Grin), is not very interested in the whole deal and the quarrels between his uncles and aunts, as his own parents had been estranged from the rest of the Barleycorn family and he himself has only recently arrived at the cemetery, but fate makes Smiley's fate his business. For one night, Grin was murdered. Poisoned. And very likely by mistake, taking the poison instead of old Smiley. But whereas in most stories, death means the end, in Yamaguchi Masaya's Ikeru Shikabane no Shi ("Death of the Living Dead"), it means the start. Lately, the strange phenomena of the dead coming back to life has been witnessed all over the country, and our dead protagonist Grin has also come back to life. Hiding the fact he has died to the rest of the Barleycorns (and his girlfriend Cheshire), Grin tries to figure out who killed him, with the decay of his body as the time limit.

Not the living dead, again, you might think. Indeed, we have seen the living dead in all kinds of media the last few years, but Yamaguchi Masaya's debut novel dates from 1989, so quite a bit before the current zombie boom. It was published as part of the Ayukawa Tetsuya and his 13 Mysteries imprint of publisher Tokyo Sogen, which was mostly famous for translated (non-Japanese) detective novels (and still is! The Sam Hawthorne and Roger Sheringham novels discussed on this blog are also from Tokyo Sogen). Ayukawa Tetsuya and his 13 Mysteries, a series of thirteen novels supervised by Ayukawa Tetsuya, was meant as a breeding ground for new Japanese mystery writers. And it achieved that goal quite good. For not only did we get Yamaguchi Masaya's Death of the Living Dead, but who could forget the fact that the imprint also gave us the formal debut of writers like Arisugawa Alice (Gekkou Game) and Miyabe Miyuki (Perfect Blue)?

But this review is about Yamaguchi. The most important element of Death of the Living Dead is of course the very special circumstances: dead people coming back to life. We first have Grin, a dead detective who has to solve his own murder, but in the second half, after Smiley has died a suspicious death and his son John has been murdered in a locked room situation, things really become awesome, as more and more dead come back to life (including the murder victim himself!) at Smile Cemetery. And unlike zombies, these living death retain their memories and reason, so this is one of the few places where you'll see a murder victim joining the investigation into his own murder. But the fact dead bodies come back to life isn't just a funny gimmick to give you a dead detective, but an intrinsic part of the plot and it allows for some very fantastic and unique deductions, which are only possible because they occur under such distinctive circumstances (and don't forget that most of this happens on a cemetery, again a 'special' environment). There are also some great subversions of familiar tropes of the genre here. Murderers often hide the bodies of the victims to hide their crimes, but have you ever seen a murder victim get up and drive a car away himself?

Yamaguchi is also heavily influenced by Ellery Queen, which is never a bad thing in my opinion. Death of the Living Dead is a pretty long novel, and especially the first half might bore a bit because so little happens (though the writing style is quite pleasant), but it's quite surprising how the whole novel comes together in the end, when you realize the whole book has been brimming with hints and other elements needed for the long and complex chain of deductions presented at the conclusion. Keeping track of who knew what when so they could perform what action might not be the favorite style for everything, but these Queenian deductions are definitely what I prefer in my detective novels and Yamaguchi does a great job.

I have mentioned often that I love these kind of detective novels with special circumstances. From the robot laws in The Caves of Steel to the rules of magic in Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban and Morikawa Tomoki's Sanzunokawa Kotowari series, I've always felt that these world-changing characteristics and circumstances can really add something refreshing to a story. Death of the Living Dead's unique story and deductions impress, because they make optimal use of their setting, you can't look at them seperately. I also mentioned in earlier reviews that these stories with 'special rules' do need to have clear rules, or else the mystery wouldn't be fair to readers, but Death of the Living Dead does this wonderfully, using Grin to demonstrate what's possible to the living dead (similar to how Morikawa Tomoki usually demonstrates the possibilities of his special circumstances in his novels).

And as for the dead detective and testifying murder victim thing, I was strongly reminded of videogame director Takumi Shuu's work. There's of course the spirit medium theme that runs throughout his whole Gyakuten Saiban series (where his assistant can summon the spirit of the dead), but that only becomes an important point in the trials in very few, and very specific points in the story. But I refer more specifically to the phenomenal Ghost Trick, where you play a dead spirit trying to solve his own murder by.... possessing random objects. And I also recently (well, some months ago), saw Mitani Kouki's Sutekina Kanashibari (also known as Once in a Blue Moon and A Ghost of a Chance), a 2011 movie in which a rookie attorney tries to prove her client's innocence by summoning a ghost as her witness. It's mainly a comedy movie (like most of Mitani's work), but there's the whole mystery plot of who the real murderer is, and there are actually rules to how ghosts work in the movie.

But back to Yamaguchi Masaya's Death of the Living Dead. It ranked quite high in the Tozai Mystery Best 100, at place 15, and it's a place well deserved. It is a great mystery novel, that impresses by its complex story and its unique setting. And considering this was just Yamaguchi's debut novel, I can't wait to read more of his work!

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也 『生ける屍の死』


  1. I thought you live in Japan? In what country do you live now? You are still studying in Japan, right?

    1. No, I'm not in Japan anymore sadly enough (for a long time now)!