Monday 18 April 2022

Death of the Living Dead by Masaya Yamaguchi

In the last few years, I've become increasingly fascinated by the inventiveness of Asian crime fiction. Even before my trip to Shanghai in 2019, I'd been reading a range of mysteries from the Far East which, although often very different from familiar western detective fiction, and sometimes quite outlandish, are often very appealing. Meeting Soji Shimada served to strengthen my interest in Japanese detective fiction, as did conversations with the critic and writer Steve Steinbock, who speaks Japanese and is a great fan of the country's crime writing. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Coincidentally, I've begun to have books of mine translated into languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, which I find exciting.

I was, therefore, pleased, when I was contacted a few weeks ago by Masaya Yamaguchi, whom I've never met in person, but with whom I've been in touch for a while. He invited me to take a look at the newly published English translation - by Ho-Ling Wong - of his celebrated debut novel, Death of the Living Dead. and originally published back in 1989. This is a long book, unusual in structure and quite unlike any detective story I've read before.

As other commentators have already pointed out, this is a hard book to review, because of its extraordinary nature. But I can understand why a number of bloggers have enthused about it: see, for instance, the laudatory review on that excellent blog, The Grandest Game in the World. And as someone who has spent most of his life in Cheshire, it amused me that one of the key characters is called...Cheshire.

As the title suggests, this is a story about zombies, and that may put off some readers, who insist on rationality in their detection. But I think it's true to say that, within his own surreal universe, Masaya Yamaguchi plays fair with his readers in a truly mind-spinning mystery. At times, the pace is not fast, but the book is packed with intriguing cultural references - the chapter epigraphs come from John Lennon, Freud, King Crimson, Poe, Arthur Schnitzler, Neil Young, Robert Louis Stevenson and many more. There's a cast of characters, a map of a cemetery, a floor plan (of a 'west wing'), locked room mystification, and flashes of wit as well as a good deal of delving into the macabre - and a number of touches I wish I'd thought of. Yes, this is quite a book.


TomCat said...

Great to see you spotlight this remarkable detective novel! Death of the Living Dead and Masahiro Imamura's Death Among the Undead pulled off an impossible trick by introducing zombies into otherwise traditionally-styled, fair play mysteries without destroying the integrity of the detective plot. They're beautiful demonstrations of what can be done and how far the detective story can stretched as long as the internal logic of the plot is sound. So it's a shame their reception in the West has been a little underwhelming.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks. You express the book's merits very well.

Michael Dirda said...

As I mentioned to Martin in an email, earlier this month I reviewed--for The Washington Post--Imamura's "Death Among the Undead" (in conjunction with the Norwegian mystery, with monster, Bjerke's "Lake of the Dead"). I'm a longtime fan of locked-room who and howdunits, but zombies at first seemed a step too far. But John Pugmire--the publisher of Locked Room International--urged me to read it, and I'm glad I did. But I had no idea there was another, somewhat similiar Japanese mystery featuring zombies. One of those strange synchonicities, I suppose. Still, Soji Shimada's "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" remains my favorite honkaku, the Japanese term for an "orthodox" mystery. It's utterly fantastic, in multiple ways.--Michael Dirda

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Michael. I share your enthusiasm for Soji's book, a real classic. I wish I'd become aware of this one in time to include it in The Life of Crime - mind you, I imagine I'll be saying that quite often in years to come!