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.