Hey everyone! I tell you what, being in quarantine has put me more in touch with the YA world than I have been since college. (I did the math the other day–I’ve read 21 books these past 2 months. Last year during this time? I read 4.)
As I was doing dishes the other day, I started to realize there was a low-level trend taking place in YA that really isn’t getting a lot of attention. And I wanted to talk about the pros and the cons about it.
What is it?
I’m titling this trend the “unsolvable mystery.” Basically, this is a mystery that is crafted in such a way that the reader is not supposed to know who the killer is (because it’s usually a murder story) until The Big Reveal. The best non-YA example of this I can think of is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (which is a classic that you totally need to read if you haven’t). And, to a lesser extent, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries fit this as well.
What are some examples?
I’m so glad you asked. Well, I asked for you, but still. These are the examples that immediately came to mind:
- Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco
- Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
- All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban
- One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus (I’m currently reading this, which inspired this post!)
I will refer to these (and occasionally And Then There Were None) as necessary to make my points. But if you haven’t read them, no worries. I intend to stay spoiler-free.
What’s awesome about this trend?
First of all, anyone who’s paying any attention to YA will know that two or three out of the four I listed are huge bestsellers. Truly Devious, a trilogy revolving around the kidnapping and disappearance in Vermont, just wrapped up this year. Karen McManus just dropped the sequel to One of Us is Lying a few months ago. And Stalking Jack the Ripper has been an incredibly popular series for years. (All Your Twisted Secrets only just came out recently and is a standalone, putting it in a slightly different category than the others, as series. Popularity is a little harder to judge in that case.)
Obviously these books sell very well. Why?
Well, because the stories are a puzzle. You’re introduced to a high-stakes mystery early on in the story. In One of Us, 5 kids went to detention but only 4 left alive. In Twisted Secrets, there’s a scholarship dinner that turns out to be a trap, leaving the 6 students locked in a room with a bomb and a clock counting down.
They also sometimes make the focus of the story more about character. Truly Devious and Stalking focus on characters obsessed with solving crimes, which allows us to experience the stories from an “expert” standpoint. In these stories, we can basically count on the fact that our main character is more observer than participant in any crime. The other stories? That line gets blurred.
Because these stories focus on crimes, the suspense level is usually quite high. Twisted is a heart-pounding, can’t-put-down read because the secrets slowly start coming out. What I’ve read so far of One of Us, it seems very similar. Stalking follows a serial killer most of us are fairly familiar with (some more than others).
So these stories are exciting, hard to put down, and keep the reader guessing.
So what’s the downside?
In my opinion, they’re starting to get predictable. That happens with just about any trend that picks up speed, from mysteries to contemporary romance to vampire tales.
Let’s start by discussing the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This story completely revolutionized the mystery genre in 1939. No one had written anything like it. 10 strangers are brought to an island through a mysterious millionaire’s letter and stranded there, only to find that they’re all hiding secrets they’re desperate to keep hiding. And the body count is rising.
It’s basically the plot of One of Us and Twisted Secrets. You trap people with dark secrets in a small space and see what happens.
Or how about the fact that Truly Devious and Stalking are like updated versions of Sherlock Holmes with highly intelligent girls taking it upon themselves to play detective?
Obviously, there is a trope here. Mysteries usually fall into one of those two categories because they’re compelling and entertaining. This is nothing new. People have been following these templates for decades.
So why is this different? Because these books are all trying to pass themselves off as “unsolvable.” They drop very few clues the entire story and when they do, it’s almost always a red herring. (A “red herring” is a clue that is intentionally misleading, pointing you in the wrong direction.) Nearly every mystery novel I’ve ever read involves red herrings, but these have an extraordinary number of them.
The point of these mysteries is to make every character a suspect–which, paradoxically, means none of them is a suspect. You truly have no idea who did it because there are no clues–it’s all about who has the darker motive and that changes all the time. This can be detrimental to the story because readers know they aren’t going to get answers until the end–so the 300 pages between the beginning of the mystery and The Big Reveal are essentially pointless. This can leave the reader feeling frustrated. I mean, if you’re trying to pin a murder on 5 different people, then you truly have no suspect.
You’re not going to know what has truly happened until the very end when the killer inevitably has to tell you exactly how and why they did it. Prior to them telling you exactly what everything means, it is virtually impossible to see it coming. It’s a Scooby Doo mystery without the clues. Or an episode of The Masked Singer.
These books are all coming out around the same time, and that’s leading to all kinds of comparisons. I read Twisted Secrets a few months ago and now, starting One of Us (which was technically published first), it seems like it’s the exact same story. There are differences, especially in the writing and how the narrative plays out, but the basic structure is the same. It’s boring.
So…are they all bad?
Of course not. Truly Devious is high on my list of recommendations for anyone looking for a mystery. Maureen Johnson does a good job of intertwining multiple mysteries, interesting characters, and actually giving the reader satisfaction throughout. The main mystery might not be solved, but you’re going to get answers to other questions you have.
And I found Twisted Secrets to be a stunning psychological read because the fear and the pain the characters are feeling is very visceral and real. I couldn’t put it down.
But I am struggling with the other two. While I loved the first Stalking book, I found the sequel to be essentially the same book as the first. It became boring. And One of Us has a slower build than Twisted Secrets and lacks the sharp terror and suspense that drew me in to the latter.
Mysteries are finicky things and while I’m glad they’ve come back into fashion, I’m finding I’m very picky about how exactly the writing crafts the story. There’s a difference between making readers feel like they’re part of process of solving the mystery and making them feel like useless bystanders.