The Undeniable Appeal of the YA Whodunnit

Just as mysterious as adult cozies, but not as self-absorbed

Nancy Drew, what did you start?

Discovering the suspenseful pleasures of a whodunnit mystery novel happens as early as elementary school with series like The 39 Clues, which are helmed, in part, by the hugely popular author Rick Riordan. Classics like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy remain evergreen, as does the Encyclopedia Brown series and later staples such as E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The mystery genre keeps its hold on the middle school crowd with such series as Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes and Kate Milford’s Greenglass House, as well as perennial favorite, Louis Sachar’s Holes.

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I grew up with everyone’s favorite amateur sleuth, Nancy Drew, re-reading her adventures over and over again, feeling the suspense every time, even though I knew what was going to happen. Also occupying a lot of my youth was Enid Blyton’s two teens-and-tweens, volume-heavy detective series: Famous Five and The Five Find-Outers and Dog, written from the 1940s to the 1960s. I moved on to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot which went from the 1920s through to the 1970s.

Among the modern-day adult mysteries that are all the rage are the less-chilling, more-humorous, but nonetheless gripping sudsy, screen-ready ones by Liane Moriarty of Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers fame. Also adapted to the screen are The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Sure to be next in line for screen adaptations are Lucy’s Foley’s best-selling The Paris Apartment, The Guest List and The Hunting Party.

But I’ve forgone the myopic, one main protagonist, single point-of-view of the adult novels entirely, and returned to young adult mysteries—of which there is a proliferation at the moment, with their plot-driven, nuanced narratives. They involve, in many cases, multiple central characters, whose singular and layered personalities are much more engaging than that of a self-centered adult. In other cases, the mystery is only unknown to the reader while the characters are already on the other side of its resolution and are slowly revealing what happened, which makes the novel all that much more intriguing.

Here are 10+ current YA whodunits that are impossible to put down.

One of Us is Lying, by Karen M. McManus (Delacorte Press), 2017

One of Us is Lying was the start for prolific YA mystery author, the best-selling Karen M. McManus, the undisputed leader in the genre. The novel is a Peacock series—which has barely a passing resemblance to the excellent original. The varied characters start out like a remake of The Breakfast Club but quickly turn sinister when a classmate dies and everyone’s skeletons start tumbling out of the closet. McManus has released six twisty tales in five years, each one more impossible to solve than the last: Two Can Keep a Secret, The Cousins, You’ll Be the Death of Me, plus the sequels to her dynamic debut, One of Us is Next and One of Us is Back, the latter slated for next year. Get your pre-order in now for Nothing More to Tell coming in August.

They Wish They Were Us, by Jessica Goodman (Razorbill/Penguin Teen), 2020

Jessica Goodman’s time as Cosmo’s op-ed editor has stood her in good stead, as she’s able to weave a thrilling yarn. Already in production at HBO under the name The Player’s Table with Halsey attached, her debut YA mystery, They Wish They Were Us starts out deceptively prescriptive at an East Coast prep school but quickly leans into the dark and deeply evil tale it is, with a ruthless murder at its core. Goodman already has a juicy follow-up with They’ll Never Catch Us and you can put your pre-order in for The Counselors coming in May.

The Lake, by Natasha Preston (Delacorte Press), 2021

whodunnit
‘The Lake,’ by Natasha Preston

Whether it is abductions or thrillers or mysteries, Natasha Preston can keep a book in your hands. Not afraid to describe uncomfortable situations in the cleanest possible way that somehow still bring a forbidding chill to the spine, Preston’s story of campers who return to their childhood camp as counselors-in-training brings to the surface long-kept secrets that have been underwater but are now coming to the surface. Also in Preston’s stronghold of YA mysteries is her riveting novel, The Fear.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson (Electric Monkey), 2019

Pippa Fitz-Amobi is the 21st century Nancy Drew who re-solves the murder that is the central focus of her small town when she re-examines it as a project for her final year at school. That’s just the beginning for Holly Jackson who has found a sure thing in her “Good Girl” series. Pippa then launches a true-crime podcast and now finds herself in the murder solving game in the sequel Good Girl, Bad Blood. She finds herself as the target in number three in the series, As Good As Dead, and retreads her steps in the prequel, Kill Joy.

The Inheritance Games, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 2020

It’s kind of a dream and kind of a nightmare when a billionaire you don’t know leaves his entire fortune to you instead of his own grandsons. This is Avery Grambs’ predicament in The Inheritance Games, the first in a two-part series. Avery is required to live in the house she’s inherited, along with said grandsons, unraveling the house’s many secrets, codes and puzzles. This is just the start for Avery who continues to piece together the mystery of her inheritance in the sequel, The Hawthorne Legacy, where her life is in even more danger.

There’s Someone Inside Your House, by Stephanie Perkins (Dutton Books for Young Readers) 2017

Stephanie Perkins is perhaps best known for her lighthearted romance series, Anna and the French Kiss, but she’s really coming into her own with There’s Someone Inside Your House. The title alone has a classic horror feel to it. A series of murders happen in quick succession, and it looks like they’re somehow tied to the presence of Hawaiian transplant, Makani Young. Perkins clearly developed a taste for thrillers as she followed up with The Woods are Always Watching, a survival horror story.

Monday’s Not Coming, by Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books), 2018

You never know what you’re going to get with Tiffany D. Jackson when it comes to plot, but you know it’s going to be good. Monday is the name of our main character Claudia’s best friend and she hasn’t shown up for school. Claudia knows something is wrong, and she is determined to find out what. The book initially, and intentionally, has the tone of a middle grades novel, but changes dramatically as the events surrounding Monday’s disappearance start revealing themselves. Get comfortable with the chilling feeling you’re left with when all is uncovered, as it won’t wear off for a long while.

Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart (Delacorte Press), 2017

Best-known for We Were Liars, it’s really a mis-categorization to shelve E. Lockhart’s novels with YA as other than some of the characters being teenagers, there is nothing young adult about them. But they certainly appeal to teenagers and Genuine Fraud, which has no teenagers in it, is no different. You need to devise a chart to keep track of the various guises and timelines the chameleon-like main character takes on at various points in her life, or is it someone else’s life? As the underlying story starts to reveal itself, it becomes increasingly difficult, yet believable that she is as disturbed as she seems to be.

Sadie, by Courtney Summers (Wednesday Books), 2018

‘Sadie,’ by Courtney Summers.

Even if she’s doing something very wrong—you can’t help but root for the titular main character in mystery YA author Courtney Summers’ multi-layered story of abuse and murder. As fragile as she is resilient, Sadie is determined to find her sister’s killer and make him pay, not just for what he did to her sister, but for all the victims that came before her. While Sadie is on her mission, a popular true-crime podcast series is following her trail, both helping and hurting her in the process. Raw yet jarring, Sadie is not for the sensitive. If you like Sadie, try Summers’ Fall for Anything and All the Rage.

Truly Devious, by Maureen Johnson (HarperCollins), 2018

East Coast prep schools seem to be the default location for YA murder mysteries. Ellingham Academy is the setting for this never-ending series from Maureen Johnson. The arrival of true-crime aficionado Stevie Bell at Ellingham brings back to life a dated kidnapping at the institution and the return of “Truly, Devious,” for a double mystery that braids together very tidily. The story continues in The Vanishing Stair where politics come into play with murder. More victims fall in The Hand on the Wall. Stevie solves them all and goes  further afield to solve her next murder in The Box in the Woods.

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Lily Moayeri

Los Angeles-based Lily Moayeri has been an avid reader since 1975, a freelance journalist since 1992 and an educator since 2004.

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