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I've just finished up my May column on mysteries and while I'm pleased with the books I ended up reviewing I was disappointed by the dearth of YA mysteries out there. I'm not talking middle grade, but older teen - high school age teens. I know there are some but not many and not at all what you would expect when you consider how massive that genre is for adult readers. Compare the number of teen fantasies and adult SFF or teen romance and adult romance - there are no shortages in those genres for high school readers. But when it comes to mysteries while they are easy (and quite abundant) for the 9-12 year olds, once you start looking for mysteries with 16 or 17 year old protagonists (think of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys) then you find very little in comparison. I find this to be quite odd and I wish someone could explain it to me.

There are fantasies that include mysteries in the storyline - I'm reading Jenny Davidson's wonderful alt history The Explosionist right now and it has both political intrigue and a murder already in the opening chapters. It's fabulous but it's not the kind of mystery I'm talking about. I'm looking for mysteries set in the contemporary real world where teenagers solve the crime. The cause of the crime is immaterial - greed, revenge, eco-terrorism, whatever - but the protagonists are teenagers. Siobhan Dowd's MG title The London Eye Mystery is really not a complicated plot - just a standard missing person story - but what makes it interesting is how the kids try to find their lost cousin and how the adults ignore pretty much everything they have to say. What's key is the reason why they are ignored: because they are children.

Adults solve crimes is the message the kids are given and no matter what they think they have to contribute, no is going to take them seriously (until they wrap it all up in a bow of course!).

This is why I think that teenagers of all ages, even high schoolers that could easily be reading adult mysteries, would love more YA titles in this genre. The one thing most teens have in common is that they are easily dismissed by adults. They are thought to be silly or irresponsible or foolish. Even the most dedicated - the ones who have jobs and work their tails off in school - are still "just teenagers". Adults never think they know enough about the real world. So for teen readers it's always nice to read books where the teen is right. I imagine this is what makes so many fantasy titles appealing, particularly the series (it's the number one reason why Harry Potter dominated for so long I'm sure).

I would love to know why there are so few YA mysteries being published. There can't be a lack of subjects (please - read a newspaper and you've got an idea). And as much as I'd like to say we are still in the grip of Pottermania, it's not fantasy titles that I think dominate this age group. More than anything it seems to be coming-of-age dramas that are being published (along with a boatload of silly "Harlequin lite" titles with mean rich girls). I'm all for supporting the struggle to grow up but I spent a lot of my teen years reading Travis Magee, Spenser for Hire and VI Warshawski. In retrospect, as much as I still enjoy these books, I didn't have a whole heckuva lot in common with any of them. I just wanted a good mystery while I was avoiding my homework and I bet a lot of today's sixteen-year olds would love one too.

So what's the hold-up? Do we really need another depressed teen story or could someone please cook up a splendid story about the suspicious death of a journalist who uncovered a real estate scheme, or maybe something about a sports team who had a line on doping, or the discovery of an endangered species in an area scheduled for drilling or set one on a reservation where gas leases have not been paid to Native Americans in decades and a rights activist gets killed - or set one in New Orleans where some kids uncover a plot to destroy a neighborhood behind the backs of struggling homeowners so the land can be used for expensive development.

I mean really - the ideas are out there folks; we just need authors to write them.

comments

I've copied this post for my ENTIRE writing group -- to encourage them. Some good mysteries are coming, if they could only finish them!

I'm actually going to be looking for more mysteries myself. It's tragic that it's so strong for MG readers, but somehow peters out for YA.

You might want to check out "Strange Times at Western High." It's the first book in a mystery series by Canadian writer Emily Pohl-Weary and it features a 16-year-old sleuth. You can read a bit about on the author's website here:

http://www.emilypohlweary.com/natalie.html

The publisher has billed it as being for readers in grades 7-12 but I think its appeal probably tilts to the younger end of that scale. So maybe it's not quite what you're seeking. I thoroughly enjoyed it though and I'm looking forward to the second in the series.

Here's hoping your group gets going TadMack - I can't wait to see what they have!

Thanks for the tip Kate. I'm actually familiar with Emily from her writing on girl superheroes - I had no idea she was writing a mystery series. How cool!

Add me to the list of people who want more mysteries; and REAL mysteries.

I'm tired of books being called "mystery" when they are really suspense stories or ghost stories. Actually, the two books I reviewed for Canada Day are good mysteries; I'll have to look to see what else...

I think mysteries are hard to write. First there is the mystery plot...but then a good writer needs to do some hard research to make it work. And having read some poor mysteries, or non-mysteries called mysteries, that is where most authors fail miserably.

Hi Colleen!

From the bookseller perspective - teens just aren't reading mysteries. At least not our teens. Our boys are reading fantasy and sports and historical fiction and our girls are reading things like Twilight and books by Sarah Dessen and Maureen Johnson. Unfortunately a lot of them are reading trash (that they don't buy at our store, because we don't carry Gossip Girl). Even more unfortunately, most of them aren't reading YA anymore - they're reading adult books.

Maybe teens would read more mysteries if there were more mysteries, but even middle school kids aren't reading as many mysteries. We sell fantasy over mystery at at least a 10 to 1 ratio. We ordered 40 copies of THE TITAN'S CURSE in paperback. In contrast, we ordered five copies of the new Blue Balliett hardcover. HALF MOON INVESTIGATIONS does well in paper, but didn't do well in hardcover. Some kids are still reading Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, but we never sell those Caroline Cooney books anymore. We only sell a very few number of Nancy Werlin books.

You know I can't help but think that this is some kind of "if you build it, they will come" sort of situation. Mysteries so dominated the YA canon for so long - clearly they must have popular for a reason. Maybe teens are just waiting for the next JK Rowling to write a teen detective novel (or series).

I completely believe what you are saying Melissa - you are on the floor in a bookstore so you would know. But if kids aren't reading them then how on earth do they end up being such mystery fans as adults? I mean all that mystery love has to start somewhere....

It could be, the write it and they will come thing. Although I just wonder if mysteries aren't sensational enough. The books that are huge in YA these days are all violent or scary or depressing or trashy (in large part) and mysteries are none of those. Also, there are a lot of mystery type books required in middle school but none in high school anymore, so maybe kids fall out of the habit. Or maybe they feel babyish.

I don't know any mystery readers in their twenties; every mystery lover I know is over 35. Coincidentally, there's been a huge shift in YA over the last decade or so.

I read a ton of mystery in my 20s, but it was mostly from the library (Travis Magee, Spenser, etc.); it was my favorite kind of book during college. I was probably looking for escapist reading but I'm sure that's pretty common.

I guess we are at the point where someone just needs to write it and get it out there. I think if you made the mysteries timely and relevant they could get some traction among YA readers. Right now, there just isn't anything there.

So frustrating!

lisa waller rogers Author Profile Page

Colleen, your article on the dearth of teen mysteries warmed my soul. I've just finished writing a YA mystery called SCOOTER GIRL. I'm a five-time published, award-winning author looking for an agent to help me place this new book.

Does anyone out there know any agents or editors I could contact? I can provide bio info.

Best,
Lisa Waller Rogers

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