The Devil's Whisper by Miyuki Miyabe
In his 16 years, Mamoru Kusaka has experienced more than his fair share of suffering. When he was 4, his father, a civil servant, embezzled 50 million yen in public funds before vanishing. Living as outcasts, Mamoru and his mother continued to live in Hirakawa waiting for Toshio to return to them.
When his mother dies of a stroke, Mamoru is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Tokyo. However, for the first time in his life, things seem to be looking up for Mamoru. They welcome him into their family, and treat him as a son.
But then, Mamoru's uncle, a taxi driver, is charged with manslaughter when a woman runs out in front of his cab. Hoping to find a witness who can clear his uncle's name, Mamoru begins to investigate, and discovers two other strange deaths. One young woman runs off the roof of a building, while another steps in front of a train. It turns out, all three were part of a scam to sponge money off of lonely men by pretending to fall in love with them. All three were featured in a now-defunct porn magazine.
Then there are the strange phone calls, the raspy voice on the other end of the line that tells Mamoru, "Thank you for taking care of Yoku Sugano. I'm serious. Thanks for killing her. She had it coming." The man continues to contact Mamuro, making it clear that the deaths were no accident.
When Mamoru discovers that a fourth girl featured in the article is still alive, he realizes that she's in terrible danger, and sets out to find her.
The Devil's Whisper is a tremendously compelling story, like a combination of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and The Manchurian Candidate, with a complex coming of age story seamlessly worked in. The teenage protagonist's sleuthing reminded me of a Veronica Mars plot -- high stakes and a capable, haunted hero whose youth is never used to trivialize the story's tension. And like Neptune's Lady Marlowe, solving the mystery doesn't mean happily ever after for Mamoru.
Originally published in Japan in 1989, I hope that more of Miyabe's work finds its way into English translation. However, Miyabe's terrific plots might be better served by a different translator -- my only criticism of The Devil's Whisper is that the prose is rather stiff. Still, this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story -- Mamoru is one of the best teen protagonists I've encountered in fiction in quite some time.