Introduction to a Genre: YA Mystery

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Combining crime fiction and young adult literature, two of the bestselling genres, it’s not a surprise that you can find some form of YA mystery on the bookshelves of most UK supermarkets. Full of all types of secrets and murder; lies and alibis, there’s guaranteed to be at least one YA mystery novel that will be up your street. But with such a saturated market, it’s hard to know where to start. In this list, I’ll give you a rundown of six excellent books to begin with, as well as a few other recommendations if that’s not enough for you. 

Kicking off with probably one of the most popular novels in the genre— and for good reason— we have One of Us Is Lying by American author Karen M. McManus. The story follows what seems to be five high school stereotypes: the loner, the queen bee, the jock, the bad boy, and the nerdy girl. Following the suspicious death of one of them, four of them are thrown together in a fight to prove their innocence. Whilst admittedly the premise sounds just a little bit cliche, McManus truly brings each of the characters to life in their separate points of view and this is what makes the story so appealing. The story touches on several important themes: mental health, acceptance, and toxic relationships which brings an extra level of depth to the novel, whilst still remaining quite light-hearted and an easy read. All of these things combined make McManus’ debut novel the perfect starting point for the genre. 

Another debut, although this time from England, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson is next on the list. The key selling point of this book is the way it plays with the traditional structure of the novel: our main character, Pippa, has made the bold choice to do her 5000-word EPQ essay about a murder that shook her entire hometown. As a result, we drift between her own narrative and her project log detailing the investigation. This makes the story stand out from the thousands of others in the same genre, despite its relatively simple premise. This can be boiled down to some excellent mystery tropes: small-town secrets, slow-burn romance, and a protagonist who is nosy to an almost concerning extent. But we love her! If you’re looking for a mystery set in the atmospheric English countryside or something that breaks away from a regular narrative form then this is definitely for you. 

The Truth About Lies by Tracy Darnton is several mysteries rolled into one; both of which revolve around the main character, Jess, who has hyperthymesia. Number one: Jess’s roommate has ‘fallen’ out of their window and nobody is certain of the real story. Number two: strange notes are following Jess everywhere she goes. Number three: despite her hyperthymesia, there’s something strange lurking in her memories of the past, yet Jess cannot for the life of her figure it out. Whilst this book is slightly less murder-y than most of the other ones on this list, it’s probably one of the more complex mysteries on the list: it’ll make your head hurt but in a good way. Plus, for those of you who are a sucker for mysteries that take place in an insular location, the setting of a prestigious boarding school in the middle of nowhere will definitely tick that box.

If you’ve been anywhere on the Internet these last couple of years, you’ve probably heard of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Flitting across the 1950s, 60s, and beyond, we watch Kya Clark grow up, totally isolated on the moors. In this aspect it’s more coming-of-age than mystery; until Kya is accused of murdering a local boy. Beautifully written, easy to read, and completely unputdownable, Where the Crawdads Sing is a fresh take on the genre— one that’s a must-read. It’s part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, part romance, and part love letter to nature. In other words, there’s a bit of something for everyone. I devoured this book in just two sittings, and I’m certain that you will as well. 

Cat Clark’s We Are Young takes place in the aftermath of a car crash; one that nobody but the driver, our protagonist Evan’s step-brother, has survived. Alongside her estranged reporter father, Evan sets out to uncover exactly what took place that night: who were the other people in the car and why were they together? Was it an accident, or something more sinister? Full of likable and individual characters, as well as addressing several important topics like mental health, sexual harassment, and addiction, this novel is a definite need-to-read for those who want a YA mystery novel with some added depth. 

Finally, what would a YA mystery reading list be without We Were Liars by E. Lockhart? (Despite their similar titles I promise it’s not the same book as We Are Young). Another one of the more famous books in the genre, this follows Cadence ‘Cady’ Sinclair Eastman as she attempts to remember events that occurred the previous summer; events that she cannot remember due to suffering a mysterious head injury. Featuring one of the most iconic plot twists of the genre, it’s still gaining traction on TikTok today — six years after its initial release. This is another one of those stories taking place in a very insular location, allowing you to get very attached to the central characters. For anybody who wants a mystery novel that will also probably make them cry, I’d recommend this one.

And there we have it: six YA mystery novels that cover just about every corner of the genre. Of course, there are hundreds upon hundreds of these books to choose from — these are just a good place to start. But as I said, once you’ve exhausted this list, you can almost certainly find a new YA mystery to devour on a shelf in any supermarket!

Further Reading

Sadie – Courtney Summers

Good Girl, Bad Blood – Holly Jackson

All We Ever Wanted – Emily Giffin

Two Can Keep a Secret – Karen M. McManus

Truly Devious – Maureen Johnson

Words by Georgia Keenan-Hill

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