The Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) best known in the west are those by Hiroshige and Hokusai, artists who were still active in the first half of the nineteenth century, as the influence of western techniques and materials was rapidly increasing. The Sharaku of 写楽殺人事件 (Sharaku satsujinjiken, The Sharaku Murder Case, 1983, translated as The Case of the Sharaku Murders) by 高橋克彦 (TAKAHASHI Katsuhiko, born 1947), is less well known, but much admired by connoisseurs. He was active for only a brief period from 1794 to 1795, specialising in portraits of kabuki actors. Since little is known of him, many people have had speculative theories identifying him with this or that artist of the time. Takahashi was a lecturer on art history from Touhoku, the north east of Japan's main island. So it's perhaps not surprising that he constructed his first detective story, which won the Edogawa Rampo prize, around a theory connecting Sharaku with the art world of the region.
TSUDA Ryouhei (津田良平) has a junior research post under his professor, the leader of one of two opposing groups in the world of Japanese woodprint studies. Shortly after the leader of the other group is found dead, apparently from suicide, Tsuda gets his hands on a book of photographs that seems to give a clue to Sharaku's true identity, linking him to a painter, Shouhei. He tries to find out more about Shouhei by visiting the north east, where he had been active, and gradually pieces together a story connecting Sharaku to a group of early imitators of western oil painting techniques (Akita ranga). His discoveries promise to be a sensation not just in the art world, but with the press and television; but the promised glory is a temptation for his professor too.
This is one of those mysteries which introduce their readers to a specialist field along the way. We get a brief glimpse of the murder part of the title in the first chapters, and then we are on a scholarly treasure hunt for half the book until the next mysterious death occurs. I like treasure hunts as a plot well enough; but this one reminded me a little too much of the kind of enthusiastic house of cards construction that so often wastes other researchers' time in academic life. Reading this part in Japanese with an imperfect grasp of the kanji (symbol letters) used for names and minimal knowledge of Japanese art history was hard work; and I was often a little lost as Tsuda drew his network of connections between a huge number of eighteenth century characters (perhaps it is easier if you're reading it in the translation).
The appreciation printed at the end of the book quotes Takahashi as saying that as a reader he likes locked room mysteries and alibi breaking plots, but when he comes to write he turns to mysteries of motivation. There is some alibi breaking in the book, but it's a fairly minor part, and in general this is more a read along mystery than a fair play puzzle. We share Tsuda's experience of the story as each part of the truth is revealed rather than competing with him to solve the mystery.