The “Ys” Have It!: Five Fundamental YA Mysteries

YA is not just for kids anymore—all you have to do is look at the cross-generational success of books like Twilight and The Hunger Games. The surge of teen lit sales isn’t such a surprise: YA books are generally fast-paced, well-plotted and have strong characters, making them a top choice even for readers who’ve long left high school. But maybe dystopia like The Hunger Games isn’t for you, and you’d like to have a crack at some YA mysteries. Or maybe you just want to bring a stack of whodunits for your teen to read. Either way, here are five fundamental YA mysteries, and why they deserve a spot on your bookshelf.

Rat Life by Tedd Arnold
Rat Life by Tedd Arnold
• Rat Life by Tedd Arnold
It’s 1972 in Elmira, NY. Todd spends his days making beds at the family motel and writing UFO stories for his friends—until a dead body washes up along the Chemenga River, and he meets Rat. Rat is just a little older than Todd, but he’s been to Vietnam, and offers Todd a paying job at the drive-in theater. But Todd sees Rat’s behavior get stranger by the day, and then there are all these clues about this dead body that make Todd wonder: who is Rat?

Why it’s fundamental:
This book has all the things you might find in a literary crime novel: strong characters, crime set against a historical backdrop—but with that fast YA pace and great voice. Rat Life won the Edgar for Best YA in 2008.

• The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson
Seventeen year-old Camryn Mahoney has a job as assistant to her father, the county coroner of a small Colorado town. Her first case has Camryn investigating the murder of her friend, a waitress wearing a Christopher medal around her neck at the time of her death—the mark of a known serial killer. After the autopsy, Camryn follows the clues, only to find herself the target of this killer herself.

Why it’s Fundamental:
CSI meets the cozy in this book—what’s not to love? The Christopher Killer is the first in a series, so the reading fun can continue beyond this mystery.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
• The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Rory Deveaux is a Louisiana transplant who has just started boarding school in London. Before she can even get settled in, a resurgence of Jack the Ripper-like murders start plaguing her neighborhood. Along with her new friends, Rory tries to figure out what’s behind the strange cases, and the clues are out of this world.

Why it’s Fundamental:
The Name of the Star is the perfect blend of good mystery and contemporary YA. The strong voice, great characters and hint of supernatural makes this book a YA mystery that will appeal to readers well beyond their teen years.

• I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Ed Kennedy is the classic underachiever: an underage cabdriver who lives in a shack with his dog the Doorman, all while carrying a torch for his best friend Audrey. His life changes when he accidentally stops a bank robbery, and receives a message: a playing card with three addresses on it. Ed quickly falls into several mysteries as he visits these places and is forced to step up and change something at each one. The biggest mystery of all: who’s sending these messages, and why?

Why it’s Fundamental:
I Am the Messenger shows crime fiction at its best: a solid mystery combined with great character depth that’s shown by action rather than navel-gazing. The YA voice is spot-on.


The Killer’s Cousin by Nancy Werlin
The Killer’s Cousin by Nancy Werlin
• The Killer’s Cousin by Nancy Werlin
Seventeen-year-old David is sent to live with his aunt and uncle, to escape the media madness after he’s acquitted of murdering his girlfriend. As if life isn’t tough enough already, he falls right into a new mystery: his younger cousin’s difficult behavior and the family’s secrecy over his older cousin’s death. Is her spirit haunting the house?

Why it’s Fundamental:
This story has a supernatural element, but overall is plotted like a good mystery. The author has written many other YA mysteries, so if you like this one, there’s more to continue with. The Killer’s Cousin won the Edgar for Best YA in 1999.

The list of great YA mysteries doesn’t end there, but these five books will give you a good start. Ask your bookstore owner or librarian for more suggestions, or scour the Edgar nominee listings for the best whodunits. And with vampires and dystopia on the way out, the time seems right for YA mystery to have its day in the spotlight, don’t you think?

Girl with book image courtesy of lmaekelley via Flickr.

F.T. Bradley’s debut Double Vision (Harper Children’s, October 2012) is the first in the MG mystery/thriller series featuring Linc Baker. Follow her blog YA Sleuth and Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor for YA and MG mystery news.

Read all posts by F.T. Bradley for Criminal Element.

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