Tokyo Heist by Diana Renn – Advance Review

Book Jacket:

Sixteen-year-old Violet loves reading manga and wearing scarves made from kimono fabric, so she’s thrilled that her father’s new painting commission means a summer trip to Japan. But what starts as an exotic vacation quickly turns into a dangerous treasure hunt.

Her father’s newest clients, the Yamada family, are the victims of a high-profile art robbery: van Gogh sketches have been stolen from their home, and, until they can produce the corresponding painting, everyone’s lives are in danger — including Violet’s and her father’s.

Violet’s search for the missing van Gogh takes her from the Seattle Art Museum, to the yakuza-infested streets of Tokyo, to a secluded inn in Kyoto. As the mystery thickens, Violet’s not sure whom she can trust. But she knows one thing: she has to solve the mystery — before it’s too late.


With stolen art, Yakuza thugs, and Japanese culture galore, Tokyo Heist is a fun romp of a mystery.

Violet, the sleuth of this story, is a huge, unabashed fan of all things Japanese in general, and manga in particular – and I just loved her for it. Not only because it was so perfectly spot-on for a character her age to be so very, very INTO her thing, or because it was so wonderful to see a girl be so passionate about something other than Boys & True Love, but also because this story shines a light on a sub-culture that is weirdly both hugely popular and yet largely scorned by the mainstream. Renn isn’t shy about calling out the eye-rolling that all too often accompanies any mention of anime or manga, and I loved how Violet had to learn to ignore the scoffing and scorn, and slowly came to believe in the value of her own artistry – which just so happens to come out in manga form. Throughout the story Violet is working on a manga of her own – Kimono Girl – and it provides this mystery with a fantastic framing device, in that we get to see how Violet translates her world through the lens of her manga. Violet constantly pours the events of her life onto the pages of her drawings, turning the people she encounters in real life into the heroes and villains of her story, and I loved how drawing everything out helped her, well, draw out clues – in focusing on the details and nuances, she uncovers more and more hints and leads. I also loved how Violet would draw on the events of her favorite manga series, Vampire Sleuths (a title which made me laugh out loud) for tips on how to go about this sleuthing business – it was both highly amusing and so very true to how we all interpret the world around us through the things we read. It all brought a brilliantly unique flavor to this story, and I just loved it.

Now admittedly I’m a huge aficionado of all things Japanese myself – I love anime, karate, and I even have two Hiroshige prints up on my walls – so I have a HUGE soft spot for Violet’s enthusiasm, but I really don’t think you have to be a Japanophile to enjoy this story. I mean, generally speaking, who doesn’t love to travel? And this book definitely takes us places, allowing us the chance to explore a foreign culture – and don’t think I’m just talking about manga, because in this story manga is merely an entry point into the larger world of the culture that created it. Honestly, I just keep thinking about what my Mom once told me about Dick Francis, her absolute favorite mystery writer of all time – she said she loved his books for how they always took her someplace new, and taught her something she didn’t know before. Renn does the same here, letting us see, taste and touch a world we may never get the chance to visit, and it makes for a marvelously interesting read.

I also enjoyed the range of this story – not only geographically, in how it travels from Seattle to Tokyo and Kyoto, but also in how it delves into the art world, from galleries and the offbeat lifestyle of Violet’s father, a professional artist, to the shady dealings that surround the collectors of priceless art and even how the criminal underworld uses art as collateral for drug deals. It all makes for a wonderful backdrop to Violet’s investigation into the missing paintings, and brings a very real sense of danger to the proceedings.

But more than anything else, my favorite part of this story was how often Violet was wrong. Time and again Violet would think she understood a suspect or witness, think she had a firm grasp on who they were, and how they fit into the larger scheme of things, and then she would uncover something new and have to completely reform her opinion – and often reverse it entirely. I just loved how often Violet had to change her mind – it made this story feel honest and real – and Renn made it absolutely believable, because everyone Violet encounters in this book, from her father to her bodyguard, from her best friends to her father’s patrons, evolves throughout this story. Even the people Violet thinks she knows inside and out manage to surprise her, and I just absolutely loved it. Renn manages to pack a surprising number of layers into her characters, and all in all it added a lovely depth to this story.

Really my only complaint about this book is that it has, for lack of a better term, a soft focus. This is a mystery that takes its time coming together, and events wind up very gradually. I was so entertained by everything else going on with Violet that I really didn’t mind, and Renn certainly builds a nice sense of tension throughout the latter half of the book, but all in all I would definitely call this book a mystery rather than a thriller.

But all in all, I really did just enjoy reading this book. Tokyo Heist has texture and flavor; it takes you places you haven’t been before, and it is refreshingly free of angst and brooding – not to mention I very much liked the answer to the whodunit. This is a mystery with a voice all its own, and it really is just fun to read. A wonderful debut.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Kirkus Reviews says:

A van Gogh heist, a trip to Japan and a yakuza attack: Could there be a better summer?…A proficient caper spiced up by Violet’s eye for art.

Susan Carpenter of the LA Times says:

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…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.

Publishers Weekly says:

…the action, mix of genres, and large cast of characters always keep things interesting. Fans of mysteries and thrillers will enjoy this just as much as fans of Japanese culture.