Shouldn’t April be designated National Mystery Month? This year, from April 22 to 24, devotees of traditional whodunits gather in Bethesda for Malice Domestic, the convention that awards the Agathas (named after Agatha Christie). Just a few days later, on April 28, the Mystery Writers of America meet in New York to learn who has copped one of this year’s Edgars. That coveted and kitschy statuette of Poe is — metaphorically at least — to kill for.
These two awards focus on North American and British crime fiction, so it’s a special treat to discover mysteries from other languages that daringly reconfigure or upend familiar conventions. I just read two outstanding examples: André Bjerke’s “The Lake of the Dead,” translated from Norwegian by James D. Jenkins (Valancourt Books), and Masahiro Imamura’s “Death Among the Undead,” translated from Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong (Locked Room International). In a 2001 newspaper poll, the first was voted the all-time best Norwegian thriller; the second, published in 2017, won Japan’s major crime fiction prizes, sold 200,000 copies and was made into a film and manga. Both might be seen as mash-ups of mystery and horror.
Here’s the setup for “The Lake of the Dead.” While staying alone in a secluded cabin in the woods, Bjorn Werner appears to have deliberately drowned himself in the adjoining Blue Lake. But was it suicide or murder? Could there be some truth to the local tradition that the bestial, peg-legged Tore Gruvik — who 100 years earlier chopped off the heads of his errant sister and her lover, then died by suicide — periodically returns from the dead to coax half-terrorized, half-mesmerized unfortunates into watery self-destruction? Werner’s sister and five of his friends decide to investigate.
From this point on, Bjerke skillfully melds the classic country-house mystery with its equally classic horror-movie equivalent: In both, after all, an isolated group finds itself preyed upon by an unseen monster. But is the monster human or demonic? When Werner’s diary turns up, it chronicles either increasing madness or actual threat from a, quite possibly, supernatural entity. The reader soon fears for each of Bjerke’s investigators: a mystery novelist, an ardent occultist, a highly rational psychiatrist, a fearless and beautiful actress and a just-the-facts amateur detective.
As the novel proceeds, the desolate lake nearby exerts a preternaturally ominous attraction, characters are troubled by disturbingly symbolic nightmares, something that screams and hobbles is partly glimpsed in the darkness and Werner's sister Liljan shows signs of incipient mental breakdown. The eeriness and suspense intensify dramatically as the anniversary of Tore Gruvik's original murders approaches: Who will be the first, second and even, perhaps, the third to die?
I’ll stop there. To learn more about Andre Bjerke, the curious should start with this edition’s highly informative, spoiler-free introduction. While no longer quite as shocking as it once was and despite some doubtful pseudoscience, “The Lake of the Dead” is still very neatly done and reads exceptionally well in Jenkins’s translation.
Less smoothly written than Bjerke’s Nordic classic, “Death Among the Undead” is nonetheless an amazing tour de force. In his debut novel, Masahiro Imamura also adopts the trope of murder within a group cut off from the outside world, a “closed circle.” But, with outrageous chutzpah, he adds another ingredient: zombies.
A dozen young people, most of them university students, assemble for a weekend in the country to shoot a film similar to “The Blair Witch Project.” Quite noticeably, all the women are exceptionally attractive, while three somewhat older men seem distinctly wolfish. What’s really going on? An anonymous letter even warns, “Who will be the sacrifice this year?” Kyosuke Akechi, the would-be Holmes of the university’s Mystery Society, his “Watson” Yuzuru Hamura (who narrates the book), and a vivacious female detective named Hiruko Kenzaki decide to join the weekend outing.
Meanwhile — stay with me here — a genuine mad scientist has developed a toxin that reduces people to mindless, lumbering “Dawn of the Dead” zombies. He deliberately infects the crowd at a nearby rock festival, and that evening the slavering, freshly created monsters swarm out of the darkness. Those students lucky enough to escape the initial attack quickly retreat to their boardinghouse, where they set up alarms and defenses of all kinds. Nonetheless, the following morning one of their number, supposedly safe behind a locked door, is discovered horribly torn to pieces. Clearly, the gruesome work of a zombie — or is it? How could one have gotten through the barriers unnoticed and then disappeared? And could a mindless creature have scribbled a note that said, “Let’s eat”?
Though puzzled, Kenzaki — driven to discover the truth for reasons of her own — recognizes that there must be deliberate human agency behind the locked-room slaughter. Other deaths inevitably follow, each apparently “impossible,” yet suggesting that someone in the movie company must somehow be in league with the zombies, who, by the way, are gradually beating down the boardinghouse’s reinforced doors.
Despite its supernatural trappings, Imamura’s novel represents an imaginative updating of what the Japanese call honkaku or the “orthodox mystery.” Aiming to rival or even outdo Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr in clever plotting and misdirection, the subgenre nonetheless plays absolutely fair in presenting all the clues needed to determine who-and-howdunit. Even the most naive reader of “Death Among the Undead” will note that a cheap analog watch unexpectedly disappears, that one character constantly plays Bruce Springsteen CDs, and that electronic key cards, room assignments and an elevator’s weight limits are allotted unusual authorial attention.
Still, while it’s easy to pick up on such fairly obvious clues, understanding their implication is quite another matter. Above all, why does the plot actually need zombies? As honkaku grandmaster Soji Shimada generously writes in the book’s introduction, “Death Among the Undead” is as groundbreaking as his own masterpiece, “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders,” or Yukito Ayatsuji’s dazzling “The Decagon House Murders.” Just remember, as Shimada points out, “A zombie can be the killer, the victim and even a powerful murder weapon.”
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.