Teenagers don’t have it easy. On top of navigating a microculture rife with veiled rules and unspoken expectations—also known as high school—they often get a bad rap. Adults tend to view them through the lens of popular culture, assigning labels born of books and screen: rebel, cheerleader, nerd. But while they may well cycle through these identities and others—all while dealing with underdeveloped frontal lobes that can make smart choices feel slippery—there’s so much more to young people than meets the eye.
I happen to have two teenagers of my own, so when my mystery series presented an opportunity to explore my protagonist’s relationship with her sixteen-year-old niece, I couldn’t pass it up. After all, I had a direct line to the secret world of high school kids. Friendships, rivalries, and rifts take a different shape when formed within the walls of classrooms, halls, and gyms. But emotion and high drama aren’t reserved for adolescents and their peers.
Sometimes, the most complex relationships are the ones between teens and the adults around them.
In Devils at the Door, Shana Merchant finds herself agreeing to take in her niece, Henrietta, for the fall semester. With news of the Merchant family’s connection to a notorious killer now public, Hen’s friends in Vermont have shut her out, and her father’s convinced spending time with a New York State Police investigator will quash both Hen’s defiance and her dark mood. But it takes little time for Shana to realize Hen is a puzzle that can’t easily be solved. And when Shana finds Hen at the scene of a crime with local kids who may be drawn to the violence that looms over both their lives, she must put her preconceptions aside to protect her niece from harm.
Here are five other crime novels that tackle teens, their struggles, and their relationships with the adults around them.
Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka
Told from multiple points of view, including those of outcast teens Cameron and Jade, Girl in Snow opens with the murder of beloved classmate Lucinda Hayes but quickly becomes a stirring study of identity. Cameron and Jade both live in the shadow of a parent’s mistakes, and both have eccentricities that could lead the reader to view them as suspects. Through vivid and authentic inner dialogue, though, Kukafka reminds us that teens are still kids, and that the challenge of understanding oneself and connecting with others in a meaningful way can extend to grown-ups too.
When I’m Dead by Hannah Morrissey
How well do we really know our children? This is the question at the heart of Hannah Morrissey’s third novel set in bleak Black Harbor, Wisconsin. Medical Examiner Rowan Winthorp and her detective husband Axel are already struggling to reconnect with daughter Chloe when she goes missing shortly after her best friend is found murdered. But Chloe’s far from the only teen in town with secrets and hidden struggles, and as Morrissey takes readers from the mind of parent to potential killer with rich prose and breakneck pacing, it’s hard not to feel their pain.
The Reckoning by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
In this grisly police procedural not for the faint of heart, childhood trauma takes center stage. Icelandic investigators discover that an old letter penned by an unidentified thirteen-year-old predicts a series of present-day murders, and endearing detective Huldar and psychologist Freyja know they’ll need to find the person who compiled the “kill list.” Even so, nothing can prepare them for the horrors they discover along the way. Freyja’s commitment to helping abused and troubled children, coupled with Sigurdardóttir’s scathing criticism of the government officials who overlook cries for help, give this macabre mystery heart.
Up Close by Danielle Girard
Teens are dying in the small town of Hagen, North Dakota, and Detective Kylie Milliard discovers rumors of a dangerous game—but how do the deaths link to the mayor’s son, who seems to have voluntarily driven through a diner window? Especially chilling are the chapters told from an anonymous narrator’s point of view (“Hunters were common in Hagen,” they say, “but few were like me”). The teenagers’ behavior unnerves parents and police alike as Girard deftly uncovers each character’s emotional wounds while inching ever closer to the truth.
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
A decade and a half after the disappearance of high school student Angela Wong, her remains are discovered near the home of her childhood best friend Georgina Shaw, who used to date Calvin, the man convicted of killing Angela. While the dual timelines in this spellbinding thriller treat us to both an unflinching look at Geo’s time in prison for helping her ex cover up the crime and the twisted love story of Geo and Calvin, others are dying, possibly at her ex’s hand. In the end, Geo must reconcile mistakes made in her youth in order to save her future as an adult…that is, if she survives long enough to see it.