When I want to unwind with pleasure reading, my first inclination is to reach for a thriller or crime novel, particularly British police procedurals by such writers as Reginald Hill, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, and Adrian McKinty. Apart from the satisfaction of the puzzles themselves, the atmospheric settings, and the exploration of the innermost workings of the human mind, I appreciate engaging with books that are, ultimately, about seeking justice in an often unjust world. What elevates these authors (and others like them) is their deliberate engagement with social inequality and entrenched imbalances of power. Indeed, McDermid delivered the National Centre for Writing’s Noirwich Crime Writing Festival Lecture in 2018 on this very topic.
While the YA mystery and thriller market is reasonably healthy (if not quite at fantasy novel levels), I was struck, in looking over recent and upcoming releases, that there seemed to be proportionally fewer titles than one might expect with diverse content that explicitly questions and challenges the status quo, particularly given the overall forward-thinking, convention-upending nature of YA. Two recent releases that stand out as exceptions are Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal and All Eyes on Us by Kit Frick.
Five Midnights centers on a biracial (“Gringa-Rican”) teenager from Vermont, Lupe, who spends a summer in Puerto Rico with her police chief uncle and his family. What should have been a pleasant time exploring her family’s culture and heritage off the beaten tourist track turns sinister due to murders targeting a group of friends that includes her cousin. Our reviewer loved this atmospheric thriller that is also a “study in identity, community, and connection” that highlights Puerto Rico’s struggles. As Lupe’s cousin Javier says, “When the U.S. gets a cold, Puerto Rico gets pneumonia.”
In All Eyes on Us, a West Virginia town and its socio-economic divisions are the backdrop for the lives of two white girls—closeted, working-class Rosalie, who is from a Christian fundamentalist family, and wealthy Amelia, who is dating a popular athlete, a boy from an influential family. When both girls are targeted by a threatening anonymous stalker, they overcome their differences in order to work together. The reviewer praises “Frick’s narrative [which] challenges all sorts of social and class conventions, encouraging teens to examine critical assumptions about haves and have-nots.”
In both these cases, social commentary enriches the story rather than distracting from its intensity or the suspense of the plot. As McDermid said in her lecture, when we talk about crime fiction, we’re not talking just about murder, but rather “we’re talking about the things that matter to us as human beings: We’re talking about class, about politics, about gender, about place, about the human psyche, about race, about justice, about love, about sex, about economics, about history, about inequalities of all sorts. And what this genre does at its best is illuminate us to ourselves.” (The lecture is on SoundCloud, and I urge all fans of the genre to listen to it in full.) Where better to question injustice than in books that are inherently and fundamentally about setting the world to rights?
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.