YA Mystery/Thrillers: A Survey

I am very passionate about young adult literature. I am literally the YA expert at my Barnes and Noble. I read YA constantly, think about it obsessively, and blog about it compulsively. So I am very qualified to say that YA is not a genre. It’s an age category, and a wide one at that. Some middle schoolers read YA. Lots of twenty- and thirty-year-olds do as well.

If someone says they like “fiction,” they’re not necessarily saying that they read and enjoy everything from James Joyce to Ashley and JacQuavis to Madeline Miller to Colleen Hoover. They might, but that’s not assumed. For that same reason, it’s irritating to me that so many people like to boil YA down to “sparkly vampire romances.” There are a few of those, but they’re far from the majority in YA and their appeal will vary from YA reader to YA reader. Some of us love vampire romances. Some of us despise them. Some of us enjoy one every once in a while but don’t read them regularly. There’s a lot going on in YA, and it is very hard to categorize it.

Generally speaking, a book is YA if the main character is a teenager or, possibly, in their early twenties. It therefore follows that they are often about change and transition. YA characters are usually figuring out who they are, finding their place in the world, or experiencing something big for the first time. That’s something that can happen across a lot of different genres, which is why there is such diversity amongst YA. Every once in a while, one of those YA subgenres gets a boost, usually on the heels of a massive bestseller. Harry Potter was the reason we have so many magical boarding schools. Twilight gave us the aforementioned paranormal romance moment. The Hunger Games launched the dystopian frenzy. There’s always a lot going on in YA, but right now YA mystery/thrillers are having a moment.

I only read mysteries occasionally, but I figured that—since there are so few of them that get significant attention and since we’re coming up on Halloween—I’d read all the big ones and compile a list. So here they are: YA mysteries and thrillers, what you should know, and which ones are worth the hype. My full reviews are linked to the titles.

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

The hype: This book is trending everywhere, and if I were forced to name the book that got mystery/thrillers going, this would be the one. It is on #booktok, will be adapted into a TV series on Peacock, and even has a couple of sequels. At the time I’m writing this, it has a 4.04 on Goodreads.

What is it? It’s basically The Breakfast Club with murder. Five teens are sent to detention. One of them dies, leaving the remaining four as suspects. Because Simon, the victim, ran a vicious rumor blog and his fellow detentioners all had secrets they wanted kept, any one of them would’ve had a reason to kill him.

Worth it? Yes, but not as a mystery. The actual killer is very easy to predict. People who never read mysteries might be surprised, but anyone who knows anything about the genre will see the reveal coming a mile away. That being said, this book is a great teen drama. The four suspects are all really interesting, fully developed characters. They start from base stereotypes and blossom into a lot more. There’s a good smattering of romance, empowerment, and drama. While I wouldn’t necessarily hand this to someone looking for a twisty, suspenseful plot-driven story, it is absolutely a great choice for those inclined towards teen drama.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

The hype: This was everywhere a year or so ago. The buzz for it has died down, but it seemed like it was *the* book for a while there. Goodreads has it sitting at a 4.09.

What is it? In this thriller, a young woman decides to chase after her sister’s murderer and a popular radio host follows her trail for his true crime podcast.

Worth it? For my money, not really. This one benefits from the limited number of thrillers for the age group. It’s okay, but it’s a bit repetitive. The concept is really cool, but rather than having the two sides of the story come at the central mystery from different sides, the secondary POV–West, the radio guy–is always a few steps behind the titular Sadie, uncovering secrets that the reader has already uncovered with Sadie a few pages previously. It’s decent, but it’s not one you’re likely to hear me recommend.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The hype: This is one of the darlings of #booktok. Surprisingly, it has a slightly lower goodreads score at 3.80, but that’s likely because of its wider readership. It’s been a steady bestseller for at least a year, and every time we think its popularity had died down, it resurrects.

What is it? Two years ago, something horrible happened to Cady. She has horrific headaches and gaps in her memory, but since no one will tell her what happened that summer on her grandfather’s private island she has to depend on her own fractured mind to find out.

Worth it? This book is a masterclass in unreliable narrators. You can’t ever trust anything Cady thinks or sees, both because she is so damaged and because people are actively keeping secrets from her. Every action has at least one level of hidden meaning, and the twists at the end are shocking (and potentially divisive, thus the lower goodreads score). It’s absolutely worth the read.

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

The hype: I cheated a little to put this on the list, because it doesn’t really have much hype. It is the same author as We Were Liars, though. 3.29 on goodreads for this one.

What is it? This is the story of a runaway, but you don’t really know who she is or why she’s running away because it begins at the end.

Worth it? Yes. I found this novel fascinating. There were a few gaps, and I wish some things had been fleshed out a little more, but the formatting is absolutely brilliant. We’re used to reading mysteries and wanting to know what happens next. I’ve never read one that moves the opposite direction. You wouldn’t think it possible to have just as many surprises going that way, but if you think that, you’ve clearly never read Genuine Fraud.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

The hype: This is another one that is huge on #booktok. A sequel came out recently and it brought flocks of people to the bookstore. Goodreads readers have rated it at an average of 4.36, which you’ll notice is the highest number of any on this list.

What is it? A young woman decides to research an old local murder for her senior project, hoping to reopen and solve the case because she does not believe the widely accepted account.

Worth it? Absolutely. I’d heard a lot of hype about this one before I started reading it, so I was bracing myself to be underwhelmed. I wasn’t. The mystery itself is twisty and terrifying, with a final reveal that shocked me despite being clearly laid out by the clues provided. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder further excels with its excellent character work and willingness to dig into dark, sensitive material with a light but sure hand.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

The hype: Yep, another #booktok title. Maureen Johnson is a pretty popular author generally. Truly Devious has a 4.02 on goodreads.

What is it? A teenage detective attends a prestigious boarding school in the hopes of solving a decades-old cold case. While she’s there, though, a classmate is murdered and she grows increasingly sure that the two cases are connected.

Worth it? Yes and no. I really enjoyed Truly Devious, but it’s also book one in a trilogy and most mysteries are stand-alones for a reason. I read this before the two sequels came around to wrap up the story, so my main takeaway was frustration with the lack of finality. Now that the trilogy is complete, though, it’s a much more appealing prospect. I very much intend to reread Truly Devious, this time with its sequels following shortly behind. Since the series has gotten such glowing reviews, I’m sure I’ll love it since I did really like this one and my only real complaint was the absence of the rest of the series.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The hype: This one has been trending on #booktok. It has been extremely popular and has the extremely high 4.23 rating on goodreads. Seriously. It is higher than The Westing Game.

What is it? Avery is living out of her car when she gets the unexpected news that she has inherited the vast majority of a billionaire’s estate, despite never having met him. The windfall comes with a caveat; she has to spend a year living in the billionaire’s mansion with his disinherited family.

Worth it? Honestly, not really. I’m bewildered by the fact that The Inheritance Games has such a high score on goodreads because, while it’s decent, it’s not very exciting. It’s a standard love triangle with a few bells and whistles attached, but it doesn’t do any of the things I expected and hoped for. I expected something full of twists and turns and intrigue, layered with some subtextual commentary about class inequity. But the titular games are very straightforward, and the heroine’s sudden wealth results in a makeover and some lovelorn boys but not much else. The Inheritance Games is fine, but it’s not better than fine.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The hype: This won the Newbery Award in 1987 and has enjoyed relative popularity ever since. It was made into a movie back in 1997 (albeit one that was poorly received) and is actually in the works for a TV adaptation right now on HBO Max. Goodreads has it at an even 4.00.

What is it? An eccentric millionaire’s will brings an eclectic group of heirs together, none of whom have an obvious connection to him. And the reading of the will is far from normal; Westing wrote that one of the heirs ended his life, and wills his entire fortune to whichever pair of heirs can decipher his clues to win “the Westing Game.”

Worth it? 1000% yes. This is one of the most brilliant, surprising, and exciting novels I’ve ever read. If I were forced to make a lifetime list of my top ten books, it would make it easily. It would make the top five. It would probably make the top three. I’ve read and reread it every couple of years since I was nine, and now I’m nearly thirty. This was the first mystery novel I remember reading, and it has spoiled every subsequent one. The characters are fascinating. The twist reveals are mind-boggling, but incredibly foreshadowed. Every character has a handful of secrets; no one is what they first appear, but they are all multi-faceted and nuanced. There’s subtle social commentary underneath the brilliant mystery, and when I prepped for my Westing Game book club, I found so many great discussion starters that I could discuss the nuances and intricacies of this one for hours (and have done). The fact that anyone could read this and give it less than 5/5 is mind-boggling to me.

My Whole Truth by Mischa Thrace

The hype: There is basically no hype for this one. I read it randomly because it looked vaguely interesting, and then it was dubbed my “least popular” book of the year on goodreads. Speaking of goodreads, My Whole Truth has a 3.96 over there.

What is it? When a seventeen-year old girl is brutally assaulted, she bravely fights back and kills her attacker. Left physically and mentally damaged, all she wants is to be left alone to heal… but unfortunately her attacker was handsome, popular, and well-connected. His family wants her charged with his murder.

Worth it? This novel is absolutely chilling. It is a no-kidding edge-of-your-seat thriller. I could not put it down and stayed up well past when I should have been sleeping every night until I had finished it. Pacing makes or breaks a thriller, and Thrace has pacing down to an art with My Whole Truth. Each new reveal appears at exactly the moment it is needed to keep the reader glued to the page, and while the subject matter is extremely dark and potentially triggering, Thrace depicts it with exactly the right touch: harsh enough that you feel the weight of it but light enough that you don’t drown in it. More people should read this one.

What YA mystery/thrillers have I missed? Which of these is your favorite?

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