Turning Japanese #14: Death of the Living Dead (1989) by Masaya Yamaguchi (translated by Ho-Ling Wong)

Murder mysteries involving the undead translated from the Japanese are like buses: you wait ages for one and then two come along at once. But whereas Death Among the Undead involved zombies created from a single incident who then lose all sense of self and become part of a horde dedicated to making more zombies, in this book an unexplained worldwide phenomenon means that a number of people across the world have come back from the dead, retaining their personalities and the ability to act but with no detectable signs of life such as a pulse or brainwaves.

It is against this backdrop that we come to Smile Cemetery, Tombsville, New England, run by the Barleycorns, a typical dysfunctional GAD family headed by a dying patriarch who is about to change his will. Murder inevitably follows but in a funeral home there is plenty of scope for bodies to get mixed up, which is added to by the fact that the newly deceased may themselves be responsible for some of the confusion. Black comedy is laced through the narrative and the end of chapter 29 had me laughing out loud.

The explanation of everything that has been going on, when it finally comes, is brilliant and the clues were there, especially if the reader picks up on one key element of the solution. As a completely fooled reader I was very satisfied.

This book was named “King of Kings” by the Japanese Mystery Review Magazine when it ranked mystery novels from 1988-2018. Hopefully we will see more translation of Yamaguchi’s work, such as the award-winning “The Japan Mystery Case”.

Click here for more reviews of Japanese mystery fiction.

#75 – Poirot’s Early Cases

Summer 1974, the offices of the Collins Crime Club:

– What’s this year’s “Christie for Christmas” going to be then?

– Good point, she hasn’t submitted anything this year.

– What about that manuscript that’s been locked away for years? Can we do something with that?

– It’s only supposed to be published posthumously. She’s over eighty so there’s every chance that…

– Couldn’t we do something about that?

– Help things along you mean! Are you mad?

– I suppose that would be taking things a little too far. Hmm, how about getting in someone else to write a Poirot novel?

– That’s even crazier than your first idea! As if anyone else could possibly put together a plot worthy of Christie at her best. That’s never going to happen!

– Ah, weren’t there some short stories from the 1920s that have never been anthologised?

– Well, yes, but they weren’t considered good enough for “Poirot Investigates” so I hardly feel…

– Surely they’re better than “Postern of Fate” and we published that.

– Point taken. Let’s do it!

Eighteen stories, which don’t set the world alight, but which, as they were written fifty years before, make a welcome change to Christie’s output of the late 60s and early 70s. The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, The Lemesurier Inheritance, Wasps’ Nest, and The Veiled Lady are my pick of the bunch.

The cases presented are:

The Affair at the Victory Ball (VB) – the first ever Poirot short-story. He solves the case without visiting the scene of the crime as he can deduce certain properties that is must have possessed.

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook (CC) – Poirot investigates the seemingly unimportant disappearance of a domestic servant which leads him to a murderer. This was the chosen to be first episode of the David Suchet TV series.

The Cornish Mystery (CM) – Mrs Pengelly consults Poirot, confiding in him that she thinks her husband may be poisoning her. When he comes down the next day, she is dead. Poirot engages in a neat bluff to gain the murderer’s confession.

The Adventure of Johnnie Waverley (JW) – a ransom is demanded before a kidnapping has even occurred. Can Poirot prevent the crime from being carried out?

The Double Clue (DC) – to leave one identifying possession at the scene of a crime may be regarded as a misfortune; to leave two looks like carelessness. Marks the first appearance of Countess Vera Rossakoff.

The King of Clubs (KC) – a clairvoyant reading the cards sees danger from the king of clubs and (by a one in fifty-two chance) it is that card that leads Poirot to the truth.

The Lemesurier Inheritance (LI) – a tale of a family curse, this features an excellent first line demonstrating Hasting’s pomposity and a killer final remark.

The Lost Mine (LM) – Holmes occasionally told Watson of cases that pre-dated their acquaintance and here Poirot does the same for Hastings with this tale set partly in Chinatown.

The Plymouth Express (PE) – a woman’s body is found in a train compartment and her jewel case is missing. This was expanded into the novel “The Mystery of the Blue Train”.

The Chocolate Box (CB) – Poirot relates a case set in Belgium when as a young policeman he failed. “Chocolate box” is to Poirot what “Norbury” is to Holmes.

The Submarine Plans (SP) – Poirot is asked to find out who has stolen secret documents. This was expanded into “The Incredible Theft” collected in “Murder in the Mews”.

The Third-Floor Flat (TFF) – Poirot investigates a murder that has taken place in his own apartment building.

Double Sin (DS) – reluctantly going for a day trip in a motor coach Poirot finds himself on a busman’s holiday.

The Market Basing Mystery (MBM) – on holiday with Hastings and Japp, Poirot discovers a devious killer.

Wasps’ Nest (WN) – My namesake is helped by Poirot in a nasty case of poisoning.

The Veiled Lady (VL) – Poirot turns burglar to help a damsel in distress.

Problem at Sea (PAS) – despite his well known mal de mer Poirot takes a voyage which ends with a murder to solve.

How Does Your Garden Grow? (GG) – the evidence is not tidied away neatly enough and that is what leads Poirot to the murderer.

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Has a bank balance of four hundred and forty-four pounds, four and fourpence and the only shares he owns are in the Burma Mines Limited (LM).

Assisted Ebenezer Halliday in an affair relating to bearer bonds (PE).

For unexplained reasons he takes a flat in the name of Mr O’Connor (TFF).

Once loved a beautiful English girl, but she could not cook (TFF).

Can speak English confidently with a slight Cockney accent (PAS).

Captain Hastings

It is specified that he was wounded on the Somme (VB).

His overdraft never seems to grow any less (LM).

Inspector Japp

Is an ardent botanist in his spare time (MBM).

Signs of the Times

Poirot is going to lay aside his winter coat “in the powder of Keatings” (CC). Keating’s Powder was advertised with the slogan “Kills with Ease, Bugs & Beetles, Moths & Fleas” – it would have made a significant change to the story of Julian Donaldson’s “Superworm”!

The cook’s trunk was taken by Carter Paterson (CC). This road haulage firm was founded in 1860.

References to previous works

David MacAdam, subject of “The Kidnapped Prime Minister” collected in “Poirot Investigates”, still holds that office and that case is explicitly referred to (SP).

He Died With His Eyes Open (1984) by Derek Raymond

The dead man was so low on the social scale that his case is immediately passed to the unnamed narrator, a detective sergeant of “A14 – Unexplained Deaths” who “work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did”. At least that’s the view of outsiders – to the narrator and his colleagues “No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens all the time in a city like this”.

The D.S. is a loner who works alone, and so despite being official, follows in the private eye tradition. He gets to the know the victim through the latter’s cassette tape monologues – extracts of which seem to be building towards something of significance for the plot but which ultimately lead nowhere – and he makes his way through his family and acquaintances to try to find the murderer.

I thought this was going to be a tougher read than it was – maybe I was thinking of what I had read about a later book in the series – but what is found in a suspect’s house is repellant and just weird.

It’s safe to say that if the narrator of the Factory series was not included in the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives that I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. I did try to keep an open mind but as I expected this wasn’t my cup of tea. As the reference book itself says his “attempts to catch these killers do not rely on any extraordinarily acute investigative skills, on deduction, or on the accumulation of evidence” – so why was he even included on the list? Anyway, I’ve ticked him off now – the only way now is up.



Turning Japanese #13: The Village of Eight Graves (1951) by Seishi Yokomizo (translated by Bryan Karetnyk)

In 1566 eight samurai fled to the countryside following the surrender of their daimyo taking a great quantity of gold with them. The villagers who initially welcomed them soon betray them and the men’s dying leader places a curse upon them and their descendants. Six months later the ringleader, Shozaemon Tajimi, goes berserk killing seven people before taking his own life. To appease the spirits of the dead the villagers re-bury the eight men and create a shrine to them. They live in peace for the next few centuries but they never find the gold they had murdered for.

In the 1920s Yozo Tajimi, deserted by his abused mistress Tsuruko, goes on a rampage of his own, killing thirty-two people before fleeing into the mountains, never to be seen again.

In the late 1940s narrator Tatsuya Terada, son of the now deceased Tsuruko, is contacted by a lawyer on behalf of the Tajimi family, who because of the poor health of his half-siblings wish him to return to Eight Graves and become heir to the estate. Before he returns he receives a note warning him not to return home as that will only cause further bloodshed and then his maternal grandfather, sent to fetch him, is poisoned.

Undeterred, Tatsuya leaves the city behind him, but death follows him to Eight Graves and he is soon defending himself from the superstitious villagers and the police.

The story is related in the Had-I-But-Known style, which I am not that familiar with, but I do know that a male narrator in these cases is unusual. As a prime suspect in the case, Tatsuya is not taken into the confidence of the police or series sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi, and so we don’t see enough of the latter, which for me makes this the weakest of the three Yokomizo’s I’ve read. There are some good pieces of deduction, particularly in relation to the third murder, but these are few and far between until the final explanation is given.

There is far too much (ROT 13) ehaavat nebhaq va gur pnirf and quite how the feeble and fearful Tatsuya has guerr jbzra ehaavat nsgre uvz is a mystery.

Hopefully “Gokumon Island” due to be published in English in the summer will be better fare and more akin to the excellence of “The Honjin Murders”.

Previous posts in this series:

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo

The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko

Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji – WITH SPOILERS

The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa

Ellery Queen’s Japanese Mystery Stories

Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa

Death Among the Undead by Masahiro Imamura