Mystery books deserve their own month. Here are some books to get the party started.
Both of these awards focus on North American and British crime fiction, so it’s a treat to discover mysteries from other languages that boldly reconfigure or shake up familiar conventions. I have just read two outstanding examples: that of André Bjerke “The lake of the dead,” translated from Norwegian by James D. Jenkins (Valancourt Books), and Masahiro Imamura”Death among the living dead», translated from Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong (Locked Room International). In a 2001 newspaper poll, the former was voted the best Norwegian thriller of all time; the second, published in 2017, won major Japanese detective novel awards, sold 200,000 copies, and was adapted into film and manga. Both could be considered mixtures of mystery and horror.
Here is the configuration of “The lake of the dead”. While left alone in a remote cabin in the woods, Bjorn Werner appears to have deliberately drowned in the nearby blue lake. But was it suicide or murder? Could there be some truth to the local lore that the beastly, ankle-legged Tore Gruvik – who 100 years earlier cut off the heads of his wandering sister and her lover, then died by suicide – periodically returns from the dead to coax half-terrorized, half-hypnotized wretches into aquatic self-destruction? Werner’s sister and five of her friends decide to investigate.
I like unusual books. Here is what I would read — if I had the time.
From this point on, Bjerke deftly fuses the classic country house mystery with its equally classic horror movie equivalent: in both, after all, a lone group finds themselves prey to an unseen monster. But is the monster human or demonic? When Werner’s diary appears, it chronicles either growing madness or a real threat from a supernatural entity, most likely. The reader soon fears for each of Bjerke’s investigators: a mysterious novelist, an ardent occultist, a very rational psychiatrist, a fearless and beautiful actress, and an amateur sleuth right on the facts.
As the novel progresses, the nearby desolate lake exerts a supernaturally ominous pull, the characters are troubled by eerie symbolic nightmares, something screaming and hobbling is partly glimpsed in the darkness, and Werner’s sister , Liljan, shows signs of incipient mental breakdown. The weirdness and suspense heightens dramatically as the anniversary of the original Tore Gruvik murders approaches: who will be the first, second and even, perhaps, third to die?
I will stop there. To learn more about Andre Bjerke, the curious should start with the very informative and spoiler-free introduction to this edition. Although no longer as shocking as it once was and despite questionable pseudoscience, “The Lake of the Dead” is still very well done and reads exceptionally well in Jenkins’ translation.
Less well-written than Bjerke’s Norse classic, “Death Among the Undead” is nevertheless an astonishing tour de force. In his first novel, Masahiro Imamura also adopts the trope of murder within a group cut off from the outside world, a “closed circle”. But, with outrageous nerve, he adds another ingredient: zombies.
Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of an ultimate fan
A dozen young people, mostly university students, get together for a weekend in the countryside to shoot a film similar to “The Blair Witch Project”. Quite obviously, all of the women are exceptionally attractive, while three slightly older men look distinctly wolfish. What’s really going on? An anonymous letter even warns: “Who will be the sacrifice this year? Kyosuke Akechi, the future Holmes of the university’s Mystery Society, his “Watson” Yuzuru Hamura (who narrates the book), and a lively detective named Hiruko Kenzaki decide to join the weekend outing.
Meanwhile – stay with me here – a real mad scientist has developed a toxin that reduces people to mindless, ponderous “dawn of the dead” zombies. He deliberately infects the crowd at a nearby rock festival, and that night the newly minted slaver monsters rise from the obscurity. Students lucky enough to escape the initial attack quickly retreat to their boarding house, where they set up alarms and defenses of all kinds. Nevertheless, the next morning, one of their own, supposedly safe behind a locked door, is discovered horribly shredded. Clearly a zombie’s horrible job – or is it? How could we cross the barriers without being noticed and then disappear? And could a stupid creature have scribbled a note that said, “Let’s eat”?
Though puzzled, Kenzaki—driven to uncover the truth for reasons of her own—recognizes that there must be deliberate human agency behind the slaughter in the closed room. More deaths inevitably follow, each seemingly ‘impossible’, but suggesting that someone in movie society must somehow be in cahoots with the zombies, who, by the way, are gradually getting high. the armored doors of the pension.
Despite its supernatural attributes, Imamura’s novel represents an imaginative update of what the Japanese call honkaku. or the “Orthodox mystery”. Aiming to rival or even surpass Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr in clever plotting and misdirection, the subgenre nonetheless plays quite fair in presenting all the clues needed to determine who and how. Even the most naive reader of “Dead Among the Living Dead” will notice that a cheap analog watch unexpectedly disappears, a character is constantly playing Bruce Springsteen CDs, and electronic key cards, phone assignments room and the weight limits of an elevator are given unusual authorial attention.
Yet while it’s easy to grasp such obvious clues, understanding their implication is another matter altogether. Above all, why does the plot really need zombies? As honkaku grandmaster Soji Shimada generously writes in the book’s introduction, “Death Among the Undead” is as revolutionary as his own masterpiece, “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders,” or the dazzling “The Decagon House Murders” by Yukito Ayatsuji. Remember, as Shimada points out, “A zombie can be the killer, the victim, and even a powerful lethal weapon.”
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
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