This mystery with philosophical undertones is distinguished by its cleverly devised perfect crime, and equally clever process of how the truth is brought to light. The story begins with the male narrator, an unnamed writer, visiting a prison to interview death-row inmate Yudai Kiharasaka, a fine-art photographer convicted of burning two women to death. The narrator has been commissioned to pen a book about Yudai, and to that end, he interviews not only Yudai himself, but also his sister Akari and others acquainted with his work. When Yudai and Akari were still small, their mother had gone missing and their alcoholic father had abandoned them, so they were raised in a children’s home.
The research the writer conducts for the book leads him to tentatively conclude that, after achieving success as a photographer with pictures of butterflies, Yudai had fallen into a slump, which he had then tried to break out of by photographing a woman dying in flames. A dollmaker friend of Yudai shows the writer some of the photos Yudai took, and tells him that the failure of the first shoot had prompted Yudai to try a second time, which had led to his downfall. In other developments, the writer becomes sexually involved with Akari, and Yudai reveals that his sister has on two occasions driven the man she was dating to suicide.
Eventually, the writer discovers that Yudai had been fingered as a killer by none other than Kobayashi, the very editor who commissioned him to produce the book. When Kobayashi learned from a newspaper article that a woman he’d been dating died in a fire at Yudai’s studio, he approached Akari in an effort to find out more about the incident. After they have sex, Akari reveals to Kobayashi that she was in fact the one who had abducted the woman at Yudai’s behest. The enraged Kobayashi joins forces with a lawyer who also bears a grudge against Akari to plot the perfect crime: they procure a woman named Yuriko for Yudai’s next shoot, and just before Yudai sets fire to her, they replace her with the sedated Akari, thereby sending Akari to her death and allowing Yuriko to survive as Akari.
Deftly interwoven among the numerous twists and turns that keep the reader guessing are such weighty questions as the nature of good vs. evil, and of imagination vs. imitation in art.