Five Offbeat YA Mysteries

Instead of posting individual reviews for these five YA books, I thought I would group them together in one post to highlight the theme that connects them. These are all what I am deeming “offbeat mysteries,” YA books that feature a central mystery, but which are not detective or puzzle stories. In these books, the main characters, teens who possess no great deductive skills, solve unusual mysteries that are presented in ways that are variously witty, strange, and unexpected. But, for those of you who are not mystery aficionados, fear not—the books also feature compelling coming-of-age stories. Every one of them is a great read for both mystery fans and skeptics alike: they offer something original, something intriguing, and, above all, something sure to entertain.


In John Green’s Paper Towns, Quentin Jacobsen is leading a safe, predictable, and predictably boring life. Unpopular at school, Quentin, or Q, spends his time with two equally uncool friends, just counting down the days to graduation. He yearns for his neighbor, the fearless and exciting Margo Roth Spiegelman, with whom he discovered a dead body when the two were just children. But Margo is in the popular crowd, and she lives a life Quentin could only dream of: something of a myth in their Orlando, Florida suburb, Margo is said to have run off and joined the circus for a few days, and has broken into most of Orlando’s world famous attractions after hours. One night, everything changes, and Margo finally reaches out to Quentin. Could this be the start of, well if not a romance then at least a lasting friendship? After their late night adventure around town, Quentin can’t wait to see what happens with Margo at school. The only problem is, Margo isn’t at school the next day. And she isn’t there the day after that. The lone clue she seems to have left behind is a poster in her window, the window that is directly across from Quentin’s. Certain that it is a clue left specifically for him, Quentin begins a journey that takes him through Leaves of Grass, abandoned subdivisions, and some pretty harrowing situations. Along the way, he learns, finally, how to live like Margo—with courage and a sense of possibility. Written in typical witty Green fashion, Paper Towns is a quirky but wholly engaging romp that still manages to ask serious questions.

King Dork, by Frank Portman, is similar to Paper Towns in a lot of ways. For one, both feature dorky, unpopular protagonists who are a lot cooler to the reader than they are to the other kids at their respective schools. For another, their mysteries center on clues found in classic works of literature. So, basically, if you ever scoffed at LeVar Burton encouraging you to “take a look, it’s in a book,” you might want to begin drafting a letter of apology. In King Dork, the book in question is The Catcher in the Rye, and it might just hold the key to one of the central questions in Tom Henderson’s life: who was his father? He knows the basic facts, namely that his father was a detective who died in a car accident when Tom and his sister were small. But who was he beyond that? Who was he when he was 16, the same age as Tom? When Tom finds a mysterious code in his dad’s copy of the book, he immediately sets about deciphering it. As he does so, he begins to uncover much more about not only his dad’s teenage self, but also the circumstances of his death. Tom begins to wonder: Did his dad die in an accident, as he was told? Could it have been suicide? Or murder? Despite the heavy subject matter, King Dork is also very funny and clever. Tom and his alphabetical best friend Sam Hellerman form and dissolve about thirty bands in a four month period, all with amusing names like The Elephants of Style. In fact, it is Tom and Sam’s misguided attempts to be rock stars that might just be the key to solving some of the mysteries in Tom’s life once and for all.

Of course, there are a lot of interesting, innovative paths that an author can take in crafting a mystery story, and these next two novels show just how much room there is for variations on the detective figure. These next two teen “detectives,” Will Halpin and Christopher Boone, are outsiders not because they aren’t jocks or because they have nerdy hobbies—they’re outsiders because they simply don’t fit in with a society that largely does not share their disabilities. In Josh Berk’s The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, Will Halpin is overweight, the new kid in school, and, oh yeah, deaf. He has just transferred to a mainstream high school, and is trying to get by in a world that doesn’t understand, and isn’t sympathetic to, his disability. Will gets by on lipreading, which means that he is better than most at observing people. This proves to be crucial when one of his classmates meets a mysterious end at a coal mine on a school field trip. Will and his best friend, Devon Smiley, are convinced that the boy was murdered, and they decide to uncover the murderer. What could be a typical mystery with a clever gimmick is instead an insightful look at what it means to be deaf in a hearing world. Will is funny, smart, and resourceful, but he is also lonely and painfully aware that he will never quite be “normal.” The way in which Berk uses Will’s disability as a useful tool in solving the crime is ingenious, and it really elevates this novel to something more than just an amusing mystery.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, is, in some ways, the most straightforward story on this list. That’s because its narrator, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, literally cannot tell a lie (or, to be fair, he could, but he is deeply upset by the very concept). He reports every event as it happens, and has an astonishingly detailed memory, but there is one big limitation to Christopher’s story, as he tells it: Christopher is autistic. This novel is very unusual in that it is told entirely from the perspective of an autistic teenager who, though very bright, is oblivious to the motivations of those around him. Christopher’s world is very insular, his routine fixed; it is not until the day that he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, with a pitchfork sticking out of him that Christopher decides he must break some of his rules and venture out into the world. He begins writing a mystery story on Wellington’s murder, intending to solve the murder himself. What he begins to uncover, however, is something that has much more personal relevance than he could have imagined. While Christopher is certainly not what one would typically call a sympathetic character, the access into his mind is fascinating and quite thorough. Haddon captures not the autistic mind but an autistic mind in a way that is thoughtful, convincing, and very memorable.

The last book on the list, I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak, is different from the previous four in that it does not feature a protagonist who is still in school. On the contrary, 19-year-old cab driver Ed Kennedy is about as far as one can get from that: with only a high school education, and no motivation, Ed is coasting through life. He is a disappointment to his family and an affront to his own abilities. He lives, alone, in a small apartment with only his ancient dog for company, and his greatest joy comes from playing games of cards with his best friends, one of whom he is secretly in love with. Ed meets his most defining moment yet when he foils a bank robbery; not long after, he receives a mysterious playing card in the mail, on which is written three addresses, which are where Ed will find his first few assignments. Ed becomes “the messenger,” helping those in need, at the risk of his own safety and sanity. But who is sending him these messages? And why isn’t he allowed to stop obeying them? Ed becomes obsessed with catching the sender of the series of playing cards he receives, but this sender always appears to be one step ahead of him. Who knows Ed better than he knows himself…and why has he been singled out to be the messenger? Though the mystery is ever-present, what makes this novel so lasting is Ed’s path to redemption. When he starts to care, the reader can’t help but join in.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad

Even if you haven’t yet read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, there are probably a few things you already know about it: It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It features a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint slides. Your Aunt Carol from Ft. Lauderdale, who reads all the best-hyped books in a given year, didn’t really “get it.”

Indeed, the book is worth reading for all of these reasons. Some readers will get it, or claim to, while others will toss it aside, feeling disconnected from the ever-shifting cast of characters and marginal plot. Part of its audience will be lead to it by a sense of cultural responsibility, while part will read it out of curiosity for its inventive narrative techniques. The novel—or is it a short story collection?—is appealing precisely because it is so unusual and polarizing. Still, that doesn’t mean that, at its heart, A Visit from the Goon Squad isn’t just a well-written work of fiction. Though it certain dazzles, and is meant to, its literary pyrotechnics serve only to highlight the main event. Egan is a master at character development, and the truth of her virtuoso character sketches lingers long after the dazzle fades.

The book’s “plot,” insofar as there is one, centers around the lives of Bennie Salazar, a record executive and former punk rocker who long ago sold out, and his assistant, Sasha, whose personal growth is stunted by her rampant kleptomania. In the first chapter, which is really a self-contained short story, we find Sasha, in her mid-thirties and already weary of New York City, recounting to her therapist a recent encounter with a woman whose wallet she had stolen. Sasha steals for the thrill of it, and she has in her apartment a sort of shrine to all of the items that she has stolen (and never used) over the years. Because she is an interesting character in her own right, she is hard to let go of when the chapter ends; yet this is precisely the design of Egan’s text: each new chapter is dedicated to a different character.

The next chapter introduces Bennie Salazar, divorced and down on his luck, with an addiction not to hard drugs but to gold flakes, vainly hoping that they will reinvigorate his sex drive. He stirs them into the coffee his assistant, Sasha, gives him, and accidentally pinches a few flakes in front of his nine-year-old son, who insists on trying some. It’s both exciting and unnerving to see Sasha back in a supporting role: exciting because her absence is felt during the abrupt start of the new chapter, unnerving because she has been reduced to a less important background figure. Though Bennie is an equally interesting character, as are the many characters who come after him, his arrival necessarily means not only the start of a new story, but the definitive end of the previous one. In Egan’s text, there is no going back: each character is given only one chance to share his or her story, and thereafter reappears only to support the story of another character.

Over time, the book’s format becomes more familiar and intuitive, but it could easily turn off readers who prefer a more typical, plot-driven novel. Here, there is no overarching story, but rather meaningful fragments. Readers are granted glimpses into characters’ lives instead of total access. Egan cleverly mimics the way we glean so much of our information, particularly in this digital age; she emphasizes breadth over depth, covering various narrative voices, and even spanning decades and continents, but never lingering long enough in one perspective to make any character wholly knowable. She essentially isolates one interesting detail in a previous story—a friend who drowned in college, a music producer boyfriend who took his kids on an African safari—and expands it into a new story. Though the stories she chooses to tell are all ones we would like to hear, they come at the expense of our ever delving more deeply into any previous story.

If A Visit from the Goon Squad sounds like the result of an interesting exercise, rest assured that it is so much more. The stories are not just technically impressive but genuinely affecting. Above all, they are interesting, insightful, and excitingly fresh. While there’s no guarantee that you won’t end up agreeing with Aunt Carol (about not “getting” the book…not about how cute her cats look in those Christmas sweaters she knitted), you should still be able to appreciate the book for what it is: a work that dares to be inventive and ambitious, but never loses its heart.

Lockdown

Maurice “Reese” Anderson is a typical teenager who has made a mistake. The only difference is, his mistake involved stealing prescription pads from a doctor’s office, and he was caught and arrested for this crime. He finds himself locked up at a juvenile prison called Progress, where his efforts to improve his attitude are met with opposition by the boys who have already given up. His days are spent going to class, dodging (or not dodging) fights, and dealing with the boredom that comes from being cut off from the outside world.

When he is singled out as a likely candidate for a new rehabilitation program, however, he thinks his luck might just change. He begins a part-time job at a retirement home, which allows him to get out of the negative atmosphere of the jail. Assigned to the mistrustful Mr. Hooft, who thinks of him only as a criminal, Reese struggles to improve his reputation. If he can get Mr. Hooft to think of him differently, to see him as a person rather than a delinquent, then maybe he can recognize the good in himself.

Lockdown is the kind of book I never would have picked up on my own, but it offered a reading experience I won’t soon forget. Walter Dean Myers is a talented writer, and he captures the bleakness of Reese’s experience in a convincing, yet understated, way. Make no mistake: the story is depressing and claustrophobic throughout; nonetheless, it refrains from any inauthentic sensationalizing. The most haunting aspect of Lockdown is that it all rings true. Though Reese is a fictional character, he represents plenty of young men who are very much real.

Although readers desperately hopes that Reese will be able to transcend his circumstances, they are continually reminded of how truly difficult this is to do. Perhaps this is the most troubling, but ultimately most important, part of the novel. Myers offers no tidy ending, no promise of redemption; instead, he gives his audience what they really need: a sober lesson on the way the world sometimes works.

Stitches: A Memoir

David Small’s family doesn’t communicate. His childhood is full of silence and unarticulated feelings; “home” means nothing more than a place full of secrets and poorly expressed anger. David’s father is a doctor, and he treats David’s many minor childhood illnesses with an excessive number of x-rays. Believing he can cure his son, he instead achieves the opposite. David wakes up one day, from a supposedly simple procedure, with his throat stitched up like a boot, one vocal cord removed. He learns only later—and through a letter that he was not meant to see—that his parents had taken their silence further than he could have imagined: they had failed to inform their 14-year-old son that he had cancer.

As David adjusts to a life of imposed silence, he begins to lose himself in a world where he does have a voice. He starts to draw as a means to release his anger and frustration, as well as to create a place where he belongs. Through a therapist, David is able to recover his self-worth. He is also able to recover his voice, through an unlikely method. David learns to scream, and by screaming he both strengthens his voice and releases the fear and anger that had become such a part of him. In the end, David finds the courage to reject the madness of his family, and to pursue a life of fulfillment, and even happiness.

Stitches is just as depressing as it sounds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to read. David Small is a talented artist, and he communicates his story in a beautiful, if bleak, manner. Channeling a silent movie, he introduces the story with establishing shots and proceeds to tell a tale that requires very little dialogue. He emphasizes the distance between sound and silence, between what is said and unsaid. That he is able to tell his story at all is impressive. That he is able to tell it with such depth, such honesty, and such skill is really what makes Stitches so remarkable.

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