Viking: 373 pp.: $17.99, ages 12 and up
When Japanese culture is fused with teen fiction, the result is usually shojo manga — black-and-white graphic novels with a girlish romantic twist. In “Tokyo Heist,” Japanese comics aren’t the format but serve as an undercurrent in a globe-trotting, art-themed mystery novel involving missing Van Goghs, Japanese gangsters and a 16-year-old girl on the outs with her father.
Violet had no idea how important her interest in all things Japanese would become when she went to live with her artist dad for a summer after years of seeing him every other month for dinner. Before moving to his house in a bohemian Seattle neighborhood, Violet’s plans had been simply to work at the local comic shop for the summer and become more visible to her self-obsessed father, who hadn’t informed his girlfriend or his gallery owner that he even had a daughter.
That changes in the book’s first chapter, when Violet attends an art opening and meets the key players in her dad’s life, many of whom become suspects in an art heist that Violet decides to solve. One of her dad’s most important clients is a wealthy Japanese couple who recently had three Van Gogh drawings stolen from their home.
Were they taken by her dad’s girlfriend, an art restorer who had just done some work on the Van Goghs? Or was it the gallery assistant, who intended to sell them on the black market and use the money to open his own space? Perhaps it was the yakuza members lurking outside the gallery, hoping to blend in to the Washington state environs by wearing REI gear and driving Priuses? Naturally curious, Violet begins to piece together the clues in a narrative that begins in Seattle but mostly takes place in Tokyo (where Violet’s father was hired to paint a mural) and then in Kyoto.
Like Violet, debut young adult author Diana Renn is a Japanophile who peppers the text with foreign lingo and infuses the story with cultural touchstones that surpass the usual kimonos and sushi and bring the island nation to life. In her Tokyo hotel, Violet notes the bird and cricket sounds piped into the hallways and a toilet that plays music. While Violet shops with a Seattle friend now living inJapan’scapital city, readers can practically see the blinding neon and outrageous outfits of the Harajuku district and taste the squid chips they snack on during a bullet train ride.
Being the only daughter of a mostly absent father, Violet is lacking in chikaru (confidence), but being gaijin (a foreigner) and a teen, she and her American friend are keenly aware of kakkoin (hot) guys and sugoi (awesome) outfits and the unintentionally humorous “Engrish” slapped onto shopping bags that read “friendship worms the heart” and “be satisfined with pure beauty.”
Like her dad, Violet interprets the world through an artist’s eyes, but her medium is the pen-and-ink drawing style of manga. Her heroine: A comic book character she created named Kimono Girl, who plays out Violet’s theories about the missing Van Goghs and leads to the discovery of a hidden painting. To deal with her messy life, Violet finds solace “going into a world where stories are laid out in neat panels,” but she discovers manga isn’t only entertainment. It’s a guide for living, a career aspiration and a tool for solving crime.
Renn keeps the tension high and the pace moving in a modern, unique whodunit that raises the stakes with a ransom note, a death threat and 10 days to locate and return a painting. In the process, Violet not only solves a crime but builds the self-confidence she needs to foster her artistic talents and a better relationship with her dad. With a backdrop of cormorant fishing and traitorous yakuza mobsters, “Tokyo Heist” is a refreshing break from the tsunami of dystopian, paranormal titles in the young adult aisle.