Promises Versus Expectations: YA Mysteries

BanksyBostonI love this street art (by Banksy, I believe), which I photographed in Boston a few years ago while doing research for my latest YA mystery, Cold Midnight. Wow — are we canceling the American dream? I instantly pictured different “readers” of the art, too, seeing that they would grab it differently.

What does page 1 of a mystery or thriller promise? And what does a YA mystery reader expect? And, most important to the author (you! me!), what’s our relationship to both of those?

Mystery readers — those who have any experience of the genre, at least — expect suspense, and a process of solving a crime. But each added genre phrase adds more expectations: YA (young adult) means a protagonist in the age 12 to 20 range, and to some readers also means a softening of the cruel world that adult mysteries often present. That’s probably the aspect that generates the most friction around YA: Some authors do, in fact, soften the darkness; others ignore that expectation and even sharpen the edges. Which kind of YA mystery writer or reader are you?

Well-known suspense author Harlan Coben brought out the first of his YA titles, the Micky Bolitar series, in September 2011. Like Kathy Reichs, his protagonist has a sideways relationship to the preexisting adult series — Mickey is the nephew of Myron Bolitar, and first came on scene in Live Wire. Coben says he wanted to craft a YA mystery that would keep readers up at night, reading the next part “by flashlight” if necessary. And he and his wife have raised four kids. Coben chose to make Mickey and his adventures darker, more edgy, than those of Mickey’s uncle.

I’m also intrigued by Coben’s choice to create a separate website for his YA series: Notice that it uses the character name, instead of the author’s, in the website label? To me, that says a huge amount about the YA field: It’s about the people in the books, and the choices they make. Even more than for the “adult” mystery field, bonding with protagonists matters. Coben’s Mickey Bolitar site also includes a video of a teen performing a song named “Shelter,” a performance that emphasizes the tender and caring side. Not what you expected, to go along with dark and edgy?

And that takes us back around the circle to expectations and promises. Tension rises between author and reader as expectations are met, then countered, then pulled into fresh alternatives. Surprises that make sense (in hindsight!) are a time-honored component of almost every mystery, from Agatha Christie’s to Hank Phillippi Ryan’s to Libby Sternberg’s.

But for a satisfying YA mystery, the page 1 promises have to be honored. Here’s the start of the first Harlan Coben/Mickey Bolitar book, Shelter: “I was walking to school, lost in feeling sorry for myself — my dad was dead, my mom in rehab, my girlfriend missing — when I saw the Bat Lady for the first time.”

What does that first sentence promise? No matter what else happens with Mickey, the book has to deal with those promises.

Look at the first sentence of your own favorite mystery — or of the one you’re writing now. What promises are in that sentence?

Because there’s one reader expectation that matters most of all: Somehow, the author honors those promises.



About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of reading, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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