Book review: 『北斎殺人事件』by Katsuhiko Takahashi

北斎殺人事件 (ほくさいさつじんじけん)
Title: 北斎殺人事件 (ほくさいさつじんじけん)
First published: 1986
Series Number: 2
Page Count: 446
The renowned art gallery Shuin has tasked our protagonist Ryohei Tsuda to write a book about Hokusai’s life and see if the theory of Hokusai being a spy can lead anywhere. The discovery of a new Hokusai would also be a plus for the book’s publication. While Ryohei dives into Hokusai’s life, a murder investigation that started in Boston finds its way to Japan.

This novel directly follows the first book of the series 写楽殺人事件, and it contains massive spoilers for the first book, so if you are interested in this series, I recommend to read them in order. As a result, the summary I noted is not completely accurate, but I have to write it this way to avoid spoilers of the first book.

This book was very similar to 写楽殺人事件, so if you liked the first one, you will like the Hokusai one too. Here again, we tackle two mysteries: a murder case happening in the present, and the mystery of Hokusai. While Sharaku was a mysterious figure to begin with, Hokusai’s life is well documented and while the idea of Hokusai being a spy seem completely far-fetched at first, Ryohei’s research is so well done, that even the most sceptic reader will be caught in the excitement.

The mystery of Hokusai’s life is central to the book, so if you are not interested in this topic, I would not recommend this novel. This being said, the book is also an engrossing mystery with a great murder case. Similarly to the Sharaku Murders though, we only get to this part of the story late in the book.

Unfortunately, this book also has the same problems than the first one, I would even say that it is worse here. While the content of the book is excellent (engrossing murder case, breath-taking academic research), the way it is delivered is really dry. The problem is that this is not a historical novel set during Hokusai’s time. It is set in contemporary Japan (the 1980s), so what we see are characters who visit museums, consult documents and books, then discuss their theory. It is not a very exciting setting for a novel.

For example, when introducing Fenollosa, the author just quote the entry “Fenollosa” from a Japanese encyclopedia instead of just explaining his life to us. One good thing is that we really feel like we are perusing documents together with Ryohei, so I guess it is good for immersive purposes, but it also felt more like I was doing an assignment for university rather than reading a detective novel.

The author also just throws tons of names at the reader, and it can feel quickly overwhelming. I am pretty sure that even Japanese readers are not familiar with all the names given. It is not just art and ukiyo-e this time, we also dive deep into political turmoil of the late Edo period. Many names are introduced at the same time, and if you are not familiar with them (like I was), you will have to do a lot of research to be able to follow the characters’ discussion and enjoy the story.

Overall, the topics of the book (art + murder) goes well together, but the genres (academic research + genre fiction) are a strange mix. Some passages are extremely tedious to read while some are extremely engrossing. The most shocking thing is certainly that both are so good. The Hokusai=spy theory and the murder mystery are both great.

If you are interested in reading this book, keep in mind that:

  • You need to read 写楽殺人事件 first!
  • This is not really about ukiyo-e and Hokusai’s work. It is mostly about his life and the historical and political settings of the late Edo period.

The third and last book of the trilogy is the Hiroshige Murders, but I am so exhausted after reading this one, that I don’t really have the courage to dive into the last book just yet.

Other books by this author:
Cover of 写楽殺人事件.1