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by Rebecca Silverman,

Canine Detective Chris

The Shiba Inu Detective Tracks Down the Stolen Jewels!
Novel Review

Canine Detective Chris: The Shiba Inu Detective Tracks Down the Stolen Jewels! Novel Review

Christie is the rare Shiba Inu trained for police work, but a setback on his first case leads to his early retirement. Knowing the dog needs a loving home, a police dog trainer gives the dog to his grandson, Hinata, whose parents are a veterinarian and a groomer. Painfully shy Hinata isn't sure that he's got what it takes to be a good dog owner, but he and his friend Mayuka quickly find out that having a dog is wonderful – and that Chris can help them when a neighborhood jewelry store is robbed and one of their friends begins acting strangely.

Canine Detective Chris is translated by Stephen Paul.


Mystery is one of the staples of middle-grade fiction, alongside fantasy and school stories. From The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to newer titles like the Enola Holmes series, sleuths have a major appeal for younger readers – and older ones if we're being honest. Canine Detective Chris, one of the four launch titles for Yen Press' middle-grade light novel imprint, digs into several of the trends in middle-grade mystery that make it so appealing, chief among them the intelligent animal of its title. Combining the always-appealing canine character with the plucky child detective, The Shiba Inu Detective Tracks Down the Stolen Jewels! is the strongest of the initial middle-grade light novel offerings.

Despite what the title and cover might make you think, Chris isn't a talking dog who solves crimes with human tagalongs. The story is much more grounded in reality than that: Chris, short for Christie, is a trained police dog, selected despite his breed for his extraordinary talent. (The story mentions that more typical police dogs are German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers, although I believe that Belgian Malinois are the breed of choice in a lot of places.) Chris was trained by his handler, a detective named Kobayashi, but on their first case, something goes wrong – Kobayashi tells Chris to run before he vanishes, and a traumatic encounter with a bee gives Chris a fear of flying insects. Between these two issues, Chris is retired from the force, and a dog trainer gives him to his grandson.

Thus the story begins with Chris starting his life as a regular pet, more or less. Hinata, the series protagonist and Chris' new owner, is a shy fifth grader, whose only real interactions are with his friend Mayuka, a loud and bouncy girl. Hinata's mother is a veterinarian and his father is a groomer, but despite that, he's never had a pet of his own; in a baffling situation, his parents have told him that he can't have one because it could make things difficult in the clinic. This is the single most bizarre element of the story, as every vet and vet tech I know has many animals of their own, and it took me out of the story every time it came up.

Fortunately, this is a mystery, and that piece of the book is well done. The plot is at least two-fold: a small local jeweler's shop is burgled, and a college student Hinata and Mayuka know is acting strangely. When the kids find a lost earbud near the scene of the crime, they notice Chris sniffing it interestingly and realize that he may be able to return it to its owner. When they tell him to track its scent, they end up at college student Takaki's apartment, where they find his behavior odd. Before they quite know what they're doing, they find themselves embroiled in the correlation between Takaki's behavior and the ransacked store, and even more impressively begin to realize that this case may be tied to the disappearance of Chris' original partner.

The writing is tight and doesn't talk down to its assumed audience of eight-to-twelve-year-olds (the typical middle-grade demographic), and there are some moments of genuine danger. Hinata and Mayuka balance each other out well, and when they do something stupid – like climb into a strange car – they're fully aware of it. It doesn't stop them, but they at least know that they ought to be doing something different, like going to their neighborhood police box, which keeps things feeling both exciting and realistic. The pacing reflects this, never slowing down for too long, but also not rushing ahead in an incredulity-straining sprint. Hinata has time to think and to utilize the knowledge he's picked up from his police dog-training grandfather. Mayuka is the more reckless member of the team, but that balances Hinata's reserve nicely, and she respects his ability to think things through and put the pieces together, even if sometimes she wishes he'd do it more quickly. Chris, for his part, is never shown as anything more than a very smart good dog, which keeps the story from feeling too twee for its own good, which is always a risk in animal detective stories, particularly for this and the chapter book age group.

Canine Detective Chris' first volume is a good one. It fits more comfortably into the middle-grade demographic than some of the other titles in this line, and the characters are well-written while the mystery is engaging and solid. It also has a very natural lead-up to the next novel, beginning to show how everything is more connected than anyone at first assumed. Author Tomoko Tabe does a nice job of slipping in dog information – both about the breed and general care – and this should appeal to young dogs and mystery buffs with ease. And it's pretty darn enjoyable as an adult reader, with some solid Easter eggs, mostly in the names – Christie for Agatha Christie and Kobayashi from Edogawa Ranpo's Akechi Kogoro series; Kobayashi is the head of Akechi's version of the Baker Street Irregulars. This is easy to recommend for light mystery fans of all ages – which is, in my opinion, the mark of a good children's book.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B

+ Fun mystery Easter eggs, mystery plot is solid and appropriately tense and scary. Tightly written.
Mayuka is more like a trope than a character, Hinata's parents don't ring true.

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Story: Tomoko Tabe

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