Thrillers for teens have to be fast paced, exciting and entertaining, argues Kathryn Foxfield, author of YA thriller Good Girls Die First. She recommends some of her favourite teen thrillers, from books published this year to classics of the genre.
These categories are so blurred together. All the books I’ve recommended have really strong mystery elements, which I love in a book. I think mysteries tend to revolve around something that happened in the past, while thrillers are focused on something that’s going to happen in the future. A thriller needs a ticking clock, where you have to try and solve the problem before you run out of time. They don’t have to be full of peril, but there has to be a little bit of danger which the characters are being followed around by, and if they don’t work out who the baddie is then the danger might be coming for them next.
So it can be less of a whodunit and more about the interplay between the villain and the main characters?
Yes, I love when the characters personally know the murderer, when it’s someone who is close to them and they’re going to end up clashing with some of their own feelings along the way. With a crime novel you’ve got a detective who can be quite removed from the whole thing. With a thriller it tends to be more personal because you’re trying to solve a mystery often to save someone who matters to you, or you’re trying to save yourself.
I enjoy it in a thriller where the main character is a normal person who suddenly has to react to a situation totally outside their experience.
Yes, a thriller is often all about someone having a really bad day. I’d be terrible in that sort of situation. I would survive about five minutes in any of my own books. I’d either die, or I’d be calling the police, saying: “I’m sensible, I’m not doing this, come and sort it out”.
Obviously, the page-turning and suspense elements have to be there in a thriller, whether for teens or adults. Other than the age of the protagonist, do you think there is anything specific to thrillers for teens?
With any book for teenagers you have to get to the point pretty quickly. It has to be fast-paced and exciting and entertaining, because I don’t think a lot of teenagers have the patience to sit around and wait for a book to get going. A thriller for teens needs to also deal with teen characters and teen issues along the way. Often you’ve got this interplay between all of the cliques at school and romantic relationships and friendship troubles and big feelings. I love that teenage characters are still deciding who they want to be whereas we adults can sometimes get stuck in our ways.
I suppose there is more overlap between thrillers and other genres for teens — romance, for example.
Yes, adult genres can have quite rigid reader expectations, whereas for teens it’s a lot more fluid. All of my books for teens have elements of horror in them, but they’re not horror novels. And they have thriller elements, but I’m not sure they’d be classed as thrillers in the adult sphere. I think it’s more exciting to write for teens because you can mix and match elements you enjoy from different genres.
Let’s talk about your first pick of thrillers for teens, How to Die Famous by Benjamin Dean.
I really like this book, which came out earlier this year. Of all of the books I’ve chosen, I think it’s the one that’s closest to the sort of book that I write. It’s about a teenage boy called Abel who gets a part in a popular TV drama. He’s doing it so that he can, on the sly, investigate the death of his brother who died under mysterious circumstances. He’s from England, and when he gets to Los Angeles he’s drawn into this glittering world of fame and riches and privilege. But he discovers that there’s a much darker side to the TV show, and that it has destroyed more than one life already. He’s at risk of it destroying his life, too, if he’s not careful.
It’s a really interesting book, because the author used to be a celebrity journalist so he knows all about this world. You can really sense his love for fame and stardom coming through in this book, but at the same time he explores the darker side of celebrity. In the book, you’ve got this TV show that’s taking kids who have nothing and promising them the world, and then using them and controlling them and moulding them into whoever they want them to be. One of the characters remarks that they have so much that they don’t feel like they can complain, even when they’re uncomfortable about what’s going on. There’s a really interesting juxtaposition of these amazing settings — the beauty of it all and the fame and all the parties — and this much darker side where these teenagers are being used by the adults in control, and then tossed away if they won’t do what they’re told.
It’s very chilling, that environment where you measure people’s worth by what they can do for you, and manipulate them so deliberately.
Yes. One of the characters has an interesting relationship with her mother, who’s pushed her into this life and is very controlling and has such high expectations for her. And you can see the character, Ella, rebelling against it, thinking: “I don’t know if this is me”.
In the book, there are four main characters, with four points of view. It’s great because everyone’s playing a role on several different levels. You’ve got the parts they’re playing on the TV, and the parts that the TV company are forcing them to play for the media and the press. Then you’ve also got the versions of themselves that they reveal through their narration, but you don’t know how much of the real them they’re holding back because they’re not sure how people are going to react to them. So that’s really interesting. Benjamin Dean has such a distinctive voice in his books and this one has a really clever ending. He also ended his last book, The King Is Dead, on an unanswered question like in this one.
Let’s move on to your next teen thriller book pick, The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe.
Tess Sharpe’s books are brilliant, she’s such an amazing writer. This one is about Nora, who is the daughter of a con artist. She’s grown up being used as a pawn in all of her mother’s schemes, to con various criminal men out of their money. Throughout her life, she has been forced to become all of these different girls to play a part in her mom’s cons. Each one of them has come with its own trauma and its own lessons for Nora, and she’s taken something from every one of the girls she’s been. So when she finds herself taken hostage in a bank raid, she can draw on her past to find a way out and save herself and the lives of her friends, and hopefully turn it all in her own favour.
It’s quite a dark book, because it deals with a lot of trauma, but in such a sensitive, kind and caring way. Even though all the characters in it have a lot of damage from their past, you can really see them healing. Throughout the story, you’ve got flashbacks to all of Nora’s past lives as different girls, and you learn what it was that she went through and what made her into the person she is today. The book talks about therapy as well. I don’t read many Young Adult novels where the characters actually go to therapy and try and work on themselves, so from a mental health perspective it’s a really good book. The book has a good line in it, where the character says: “What didn’t kill me didn’t make me stronger; what didn’t kill me made me a victim. But I made me stronger. I made me a survivor.” That’s a big vibe throughout the book, that Nora is going to survive and she’s going to save her friends, who are basically her found family who she would literally die for. It’s a really tightly plotted book, and the dark subject matter is handled carefully, which I really like. I think Tess Sharpe did an amazing job.
Your next thriller for teens is A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, an award-winning book by Holly Jackson. It has an acclaimed audio version as well.
This book was a game changer for the Young Adult mystery thriller genre. I remember reading it and thinking: “Oh, my goodness, it’s so well-plotted”. It uses online articles and interview transcripts, and it’s got this really clever web of different characters, motives, and red herrings. It’s about a girl called Pip, who — for her final year project at school — decides to investigate the disappearance of local sweetheart Andie Bell, who vanished five years before the story takes place. The case has been closed because everyone in her small town believes that Andy was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal. But Pip isn’t convinced. She teams up with Sal’s younger brother Ravi, and starts to uncover secrets that a lot of people want to stay hidden.
Pip is such a determined, some would say obsessive, character. She is adamant that she is going to find out the truth without letting any of the stories that people tell about others get in the way. There’s a theme of how people create narratives about others, who often aren’t there to defend themselves, based on the stories they’ve experienced before, their internal biases and prejudices, and what they read in the media. There is a really horrible reporter character in the book who is extremely racist, and he’s worked hard to build Sal up as a monster in the press. He’s used Sal’s Indian heritage as a way to mark him out as a bad guy, and the people in the small town have bought into this. Pip wants to make sure that she follows the actual evidence to discover the truth. The book is all about how revealing the truth can be freeing and can help people, while false “truths” can ruin lives if enough people believe them.
It’s such an important point, to focus on facts and evidence to filter what’s true.
This book has a lot of good messages in it, and good people. You also get to know the victim as you read, and you learn that even though she was beautiful and popular and everybody thought she was the perfect girl, she actually wasn’t always a very nice person. She’s a very nuanced character, because the reason that she wasn’t very nice is that she had a pretty terrible father, who pitted her against her sister. It’s really cleverly done, and shows how outward impressions of people aren’t always the right ones. I think if any teenager hasn’t read anything in the mystery thriller genre, this book is a really good one to begin with. The characters start off just investigating, but then it becomes personal and their own lives end up in danger, so it’s quite exciting. It’s the first book in a series of three, and they’re all really good.
Let’s talk about your next pick of thrillers for teens, the bestselling The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson.
This story is told from two points of view written by two different authors. This brings something really interesting to the book and I enjoyed the chemistry between the two main characters. Agatha Christie features heavily in the book and I really liked how one of the main characters has this whole storyline where she once disappeared for five days. This is a nod to Agatha Christie who disappeared for 11 days in real life, and nobody ever found out exactly what happened.
The book is about two teenage girls who team up to investigate the disappearance of a girl from their school. The first main character, Alice, used to be best friends with the missing girl, whereas the second point of view character, Iris, is motivated by wanting to use the reward money to escape town and start a new life. They want to solve the disappearance for different reasons, and they’re also very different people. Alice is from the top end of the socioeconomic spectrum. On paper she has everything, but she’s actually really lonely because her parents are never around. Iris is from a much poorer background, and she has some dark reasons for wanting to leave the town. I liked that everyone has their secrets in this book. At first the girls aren’t fully honest about who they are, but then they gradually open up to each other as the book goes along.
It’s one of the easier reads of the books that I’ve chosen, the reading equivalent of wrapping yourself in a big warm blanket and drinking a cup of hot chocolate. It feels familiar — not in the sense that it feels like it’s been done lots of times before, but that it was what I hoped it would be when I picked the book up. It’s clever and interesting and I really enjoyed it.
There is a very obvious nod to Agatha Christie in the title, but also perhaps in the way the policemen are completely useless. Instead of trying to understand what motivates a character, they assume that all teenage girls are the same.
Yes, that’s a very Agatha Christie thing, to have amateur detectives solving crimes while the police force does nothing useful. In this book, a pair of teenage girls do a better job of investigating a disappearance than the police, because they don’t get tied up with all kinds of prejudices. There is a sequel out now, The Night in Question, which I really want to read.
Your final book pick is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, one of the bestselling novels of all time. This murder mystery thriller is not specifically for teens, but I remember enjoying her books in my early teens. Did you?
Yes, I loved Agatha Christie when I was a teenager, and she is one of the reasons I became a mystery thriller writer. I still think that her books have a lot in them that a teenager would enjoy today. The characters in Agatha Christie’s novels are brilliantly drawn and very clever. None of them are ever fully good or bad, they’re all extremely complex and interesting.
In And Then There Were None, you’ve got 10 strangers who are invited to stay on an isolated island off the Devon coast, which immediately makes you think bad things are probably going to happen. When they arrive, they all find themselves accused of murder, and they have no idea who is behind all these accusations or what their accuser wants from them. Then, when one of the 10 dies, they realise that someone on the island really is a murderer who is trying to make them pay for their past crimes. It’s a great book because a lot of the conflict comes from the characters turning on each other. They’re all horrible people so they don’t trust anyone else, and then their secrets start being revealed. I love this as a premise. One of the characters who dies near the end of the book at first comes across as the most reasonable, nicest character, but when you find out what they did to end up on the island, you realise that your first impression was completely wrong. They’re hiding something really dark and it reminds you that you can never really tell who anyone is on the inside.
There is a lot about the dark side of human nature in Agatha Christie’s novels.
Yes. I think this is my favourite book of hers. It has the tightest plotting of all of them, and it’s very clever. You’ve got fake deaths and red herrings thrown in everywhere. You don’t know who the killer is, and it doesn’t even really matter as you’re reading because you’re so invested in learning more about the characters themselves.
The confined space, the island, is the perfect setting for the atmosphere of fear and guilt.
Yes, the characters are isolated and can’t get away from each other or from their own secrets, so some of them start to lose their minds through guilt. I really like books that deal with guilt as a theme, and whether someone’s personal guilt is a greater punishment than legal recourse. The book is a very interesting character study and there is also an amazing TV miniseries from 2015.
Yes, it heavily inspired my book, in which 10 teenagers are blackmailed onto a carnival pier by a guilt-eating monster. There’s a big nod to And Then There Were None in that these 10 teenagers are all horrible characters who end up turning on each other. But that’s where the similarities end as my book also contains a lot of supernatural elements.
Much of the appeal of a thriller is escapism, but you have picked books that touch on various serious issues as well. More than one of the books features domestic violence, for example.
I like books that have a deeper message. All the books I’ve picked, even though they are a lot of fun on the surface, also deal with issues that actually matter to real teenagers.
Most of the teen characters in the books we have discussed are girls. Can you recommend any more teen thrillers with male protagonists?
Benjamin Dean’s books have some brilliant male protagonists, but the other Young Adult books I’ve recommended are narrated by girls. I think part of the reason for this is that a lot of authors writing for teens tend to be women, and I think a lot of us grew up in an era when there weren’t many girls starring in the books we had available to us. I personally went straight from reading children’s books to reading Stephen King and other authors like him, and the women weren’t always represented in a way that resonated with me. Those books didn’t feel like they were about me. So when I started writing, I wrote the books and characters I wished I had been exposed to as a teenager. But I do think there is a big gap in the market for more male characters to be having all of these adventures as well. A few thrillers I’ve enjoyed with boy protagonists include Whiteout by Gabriel Dylan, Wranglestone by Darren Charlton and Secrets Never Die by Vincent Ralph.
Is there anything else you would like to add about thrillers for teens?
It’s such a diverse genre, with books for everyone. You’ve got books like Tess Sharpe’s, which can be heavy at times. Sometimes that’s the kind of book I want to read, because it challenges me and makes me cry and changes my perspective on the world. Then there are books like Benjamin Dean’s, which are really humorous and fun but are also hiding a dark side and have an important message. The sort of books I write are all about the escapism. They are fun and often silly and rely heavily on tropes, because lots of people like tropes. I think there’s something for everyone in thrillers for teens.
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