This book is the first volume in the Ukiyo-e murder trilogy. It is followed by the Hokusai murders and the Hiroshige murders. The trilogy is chronological, and even though each novel tackles a different case, they have to be read in order of publication.
The book has been translated into English by Ian MacDonald with the title The Case of the Sharaku Murders.
The reason why I read this book is because the second volume in this trilogy, 北斎殺人事件, won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award, so I will have to read it as part of my project to read all the award winners. I thought that it would be better to start with the first book of the trilogy, so I read the Sharaku murders first. I am glad that I did so because the whole story of the Sharaku murders is spoiled at the beginning of the Hokusai murders.
So the motivation that guided me toward this book is the mystery more than the ukiyo-e part, and as a result, I found this book very difficult to read and really discouraging at times.
The first half of the novel is the “写楽” part of the title, and only in the second half do we get closer to the “殺人事件” part. As someone who is not particularly interested in art history and who has no previous knowledge in terms of Sharaku’s life and work and ukiyo-e in general, reading this book was a real struggle. The mystery of Sharaku’s true identity is discussed at length and in great details. It feels like reading an academic paper more than reading a book of genre fiction! The author is also merciless with the reader, throwing tons of names at us. It does not help that the Kodansha edition has almost no furigana, even for names of painters and critics.
If you are interested in ukiyo-e or if you already have a good knowledge of Japanese art history, this book will certainly be easier to read, but even then, it might still feel a bit long…
This being said, the “murder” part of the novel was really good, and once I reached the second half, it became easier to read and more engrossing. Having to go through all the academic research with Ryohei also makes the reader feel closer to the protagonist and gives more impact to what happens in the second half.
I regret skimming through some parts on art history, because even though it felt tedious at times, I think that this is the kind of book that rewards you for your efforts as a diligent reader. I would not recommend this book for someone looking for a murder story that would incorporate some aspects of Japanese art. But if the mystery of Sharaku’s true identity (a man who produced an impressive quantity of masterpieces in less than a year and completely disappeared after that) is something that appeals to you, then this book is for you!