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Tokyo Heist is an old-fashioned teen-sleuth story set in modern-day Japan

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With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.

Book: Diana Renn’s Tokyo Heist, published June 14, 2012

Plot: Manga-loving Japanophile Violet is planning to spend the summer living with her spacy painter father in Seattle when she’s unexpectedly caught up in an international art heist involving his wealthy Japanese patrons, the Yamadas, who recently had a valuable Van Gogh sketch stolen from their well-appointed mansion. The mystery tendrils outward from there, and soon the yakuza is involved, holding the sketches for ransom in exchange for a much more valuable (and fictional) Van Gogh painting the Yamadas are linked to, which has been missing for decades. In the book’s second part, the action shifts to Tokyo, where Violet’s dad has been commissioned to paint a mural for the Yamada Corporation while Violet assists in the company’s art-preservation branch and works on the manga she’s drawing—when she isn’t trying to solve the mystery of the missing Van Gogh. Things get progressively more complicated and dangerous from there (while remaining resolutely PG), eventually culminating in a series of close calls at the Gion Festival in Kyoto.


Series status? Debut stand-alone novel.

YA cliché? Outside of having a painfully insecure female protagonist, Tokyo Heist is refreshingly free of most of the standard modern YA-fiction tropes. Violet is a plain, nerdy girl who isn’t secretly gorgeous or “chosen” for her important task—she basically succeeds by being a huge pest. And while there is an element of young romance, it’s far in the background, with an ocean and a life-threatening mystery separating Violet from her crush object for most of the book. (Late in the book, when Violet mentions adding a romance to her manga, Kimono Girl, at the last minute, it’s almost like Renn is acknowledging the tacked-on nature of her novel’s romantic elements.) Tokyo Heist shares more genetic material with old-fashioned girl-sleuth series like the Nancy Drew or Kay Tracey mysteries than with the current wave of dystopian/supernatural lit, and the overlapping concerns of art history and Tokyo pop create a milieu that’s more distinctive than most of the post-apocalyptic societies currently jockeying for space on YA shelves.


Bad sign: It strains credulity when law-enforcement agencies in both the U.S. and Japan—plus the heads of billion-dollar corporations—are willing to follow the hunches of a 16-year-old girl. The whole dumb-adult thing is pretty much a given in youth-targeted fiction, but it’s hard to imagine even the dimmest FBI agents sharing their plans for top-secret sting operations with a teenager who isn’t directly involved with the case, just because she happens to be in the room. Plus, it would be nice to see Violet deal with unhelpful characters other than those who are obvious suspects.

Good sign: Renn is clearly passionate about the same subjects as her heroine, and sprinkles in lots of Japanese cultural details and phrases, as well as some history of Van Gogh’s fascination with Japanese woodblock prints, though some of it is tweaked for story purposes. In fact, Renn goes so far as to include an author’s note at the end about the Van Gogh painting she made up for Tokyo Heist, “Moon Crossing Bridge,” which is based on a real Japanese woodblock print that Renn argues could have inspired a painting much like the one Violet is looking for. It’s rare for YA heroines to have such specific, developed interests, and Violet filtering her investigation through her passion for manga, art, and Japan makes her seem like a real, relatable teenager—albeit one who’s somewhat dorky, incredibly lucky, and occasionally a little foolish.

Young-adult appropriate? Very. There’s almost no coarse language, what little violence occurs happens off-page or is PG, and sex is only alluded to in a flashback, and between two consenting adults. Violet is a relatable, admirable heroine who works in a comic shop, devours manga, and has a crush on a boy who wears a waistcoat and says “Zounds!” which should appeal especially to teens in the midst of developing their own esoteric tastes, even if they don’t share her specific interests.


Old-adult appropriate? Less so. Those with even moderate experience with mystery novels should see Tokyo Heist’s twists coming a mile away, and while its plucky-teen-sleuth nature should have nostalgic appeal for adults who read those sorts of books when they were kids, it’s hard to get too invested in such a soft-boiled heroine. But the cultural details are interesting, and Renn pays enough attention to detail that her plainspoken prose comes across as refreshingly breezy rather than turgidly workmanlike. The sequences that delve into Violet’s manga-within-a-story, featuring a heroine who possesses a magic kimono that allows her to jump into and interact with paintings, are legitimately clever and fun, no matter the reader’s age.

Could use less: The aforementioned love interest. While retro-minded film-nerd Edge (yes, Edge) seems like a perfect match for Violet, and their friendship-but-maybe-more relationship is more believable for teenage characters than the sort of everlasting love often seen in YA, it’s slapped-on, constituting a couple of chapters at the beginning, a few brief mentions during Violet’s tenure in Japan, and an obligatory wrap-up at the end. There’s plenty going on in Tokyo Heist without bringing Edge into it, even if he does seem like a swell guy.


Could use more: Tension. Renn piles on the backstory, plot twists, and shady characters, but it all feels like pieces of a machine chugging toward a foregone happy conclusion. Even when the situation turns life-threatening, it feels like just another obstacle for Violet to easily hurdle on her way to success. Much of this is due to Violet’s blithe, teenager-y voice, which is endearing and character-appropriate, but not especially well-suited to high-stakes peril.

For fans of: Classic teenage-sleuth whodunits, the modern Heist Society YA series, The Da Vinci Code, and Hayao Miyazaki, who gets name-dropped multiple times.