Death of the Living Dead (Masaya Yamaguchi)

  • By Masaya Yamaguchi
  • First published: Ikeru Shikabane no Shi, Tokyo Sogensha and Kobunsha, 1989
  • English translation: AMMO Inc., Japan, 2021, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Detective fiction has a death toll that would impress even Genghis Khan – but for all the slaughter in those blood-soaked pages, the genre is rarely about death. The corpse is a convention; it sets up the puzzle. But Masaya Yamaguchi’s novel stares long and hard into Death’s bony sockets.

Living Dead won first place in Mystery Review Magazine’s retrospective ranking of Best Mysteries 1989–2018, and is ranked as the ‘King of Kings’ of Japanese mysteries of the past 30 years. It is quite simply the best Japanese detective story I have read.

In 1980s America, the dead aren’t staying dead – which is bad news for the Barleycorns, directors of a New England funeral parlour, in the aptly named Tombsville. And even worse when the Barleycorns start getting murdered…

The reader is best knowing as little as possible going in; there’s a surprise twist a quarter through, which TomCat spoilt for me; I can’t quite forgive him for letting the kitten out of the bag – but we’ll have to grin and bear it.

Let’s simply say that the plot involves dead men who pretend to be alive, corpses running away from the crime scene, a grisly car chase, a will, caskets, poison, a game of hide-and-seek caught on a security camera, the figure of a man in a hockey mask, disappearing girls, and a policeman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Yamaguchi’s inventiveness is a wonder to behold. The plot is wholly original; the motive is unique to the peculiar world Yamaguchi has devised, and could not exist under normal circumstances. The clueing is masterly; the revelation of a certain character’s physical condition (ROT13: Abezna’f pbybhe oyvaqarff) leads to a series of head-spinning revelations. The reason for the absence of fingerprints, incidentally, is inspired. There are minor delights along the way, like the Farrington casket, or Tracy’s plausible but false solution. The plot is so ingenious Yamaguchi can introduce and discard as red herrings ideas that would serve as the plot for a lesser, more conventional detective story (ROT13: gur Fzvyrl / Wbua vzcrefbangvba, gur Wnfba / Wnzrf vqragvgl, gur erghea bs gur ybat-ybfg, cerfhzrq qrnq fba).

While those who want a fair play puzzle story will be satisfied, those who want more will be even more richly satisfied. Living Dead has affinities with works like House of Leaves or The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – self-aware, playful works that are fantastical in conception, and push beyond genre conventions and confines.

Yamaguchi delivers a new wrinkle on the living dead. He avoids the clichés of the mindless, brain-devouring zombie; instead, the dead retain their personalities and feelings. Yamaguchi’s concern is how they respond to their afterlife, from bewilderment, depression, and stubborn refusal to accept, to wanting to protect their loved ones. It’s a humane reappropriation.

The living dead serve, too, as a complex metaphor for the unfulfilled existence, loss of faith, impotence, obsession, loneliness, and casualties of war.

Living Dead is about the role of death in late 20th century (specifically American) culture. “Ours is the century of death,” Leonard Bernstein proclaimed; Yamaguchi suggests that while there is “a flood of death” in the media, death is becoming a product of fiction; people don’t think about it.

“The dead who have come back to life,” remarks one character, “show their transition into decaying corpses and remind us, we who trust too much in modern society and indulge in the pleasures of life, that in the end, we too are the same. All of us are dead already, just with a stay of execution.”

Even though death is inevitable, and we are all living dead, love makes death worthwhile; death is the penalty we pay for sexual reproduction, for being more than the immortal amoeba, and we ‘resurrect’ in the next generation. Life is a cycle of birth, death, rebirth – not comedy or tragedy, but tragicomedy.

Death of the Living Dead sets a very high bar for my reading in 2022. This is my first detective story of the year; I will be surprised if I read a better one.

Disclaimer: Masaya Yamaguchi very kindly sent me a copy of the English translation.


In the midst of the 1980s, an unexplained phenomenon has arisen to terrify the United States. The dead have started coming back to life. As the world grapples with a revival of the Middle Ages ideology of “Memento Mori” (“Remember Death”), a series of bizarre murders occurs in a rural town in New England. In this strange town, a family of funeral directors holds sway over everything, and a struggle for succession of who will control the family business plunges the eccentric cast of characters into a gripping and darkly-comic mystery, particularly when they learn that death may not be the end they thought it was. As the family members are themselves tasked with solving the crimes committed in their midst, the investigation is thrown into chaos as the deceased victims are resurrected and escape. With the family turned upside down, its youngest member, a punk-rock teenager named Grin, must take the lead and solve the case. Classic dilemmas of mystery, from hidden motives to locked rooms, are given a ghoulish twist when the dead refuse to stay deceased for long. And with clues hidden everywhere throughout this immersive, offbeat world, clever foreshadowing and careful deduction lead to startling and satisfying payoffs. What begins as a puzzling mystery soon transforms into much more, with action, suspense, and brain-tickling philosophizing on questions of life and death. And yet, this unconventional mystery has its own unique logic, and with the aid of his companions, Grin is able to deduce the answers to his most unusual situation. This acclaimed treasure of Japanese detective fiction, available in English for the very first time, offers readers of all tastes a thrilling and suspenseful mystery unlike any other.

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2 thoughts on “Death of the Living Dead (Masaya Yamaguchi)

  1. I thought that was more or less a known fact about the book and Ho-Ling even mentioned it in his original review, but my apologies for spoiling that part of the story. Fortunately, it didn’t reveal anything about the fantastic ending.

    This is my first detective story of the year; I will be surprised if I read a better one.

    Masahiro Imamura’s Death Among the Undead probably has the best shot of doing it, but something tells me it’s not going to beat Death of the Living Death for you. It would be interesting to get your take on NisiOisN’s Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, which is another unorthodox-orthodox, manga-style mystery novel with zany characters, plot and storytelling. And, if you can track them down, I can recommend three of the four English translations of the “light novels” Seimaru Amagi wrote for the Kindaichi series (The New Kindaichi Files, Murder On-Line and Deadly Thunder).

    Liked by 1 person

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