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Genre-Bending YA Novels Perfect For Crime Fans


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Once while in college I woke to something shadowy sitting on my chest. It was so heavy that I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Through my shock I saw it was a blackbird, its wings flapping fast in front of me, covering my face. It was feathers and dust and darkness and underneath it I felt paralyzed. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. Out of desperation I started to say a Hail Mary and then the bird lifted from my chest and I sat up in bed. The window beside me was shut. I wasn’t suffocating. I was in a room with five other “sisters” at a sorority house; basically the least terrifying place you could imagine. And yet I had been close to death, I was convinced of that. The bird was gone but the feeling of it was still with me. It has stayed with me since—that feeling of death by the ephemeral, the unknown. A blackbird that isn’t a blackbird.

Maybe this is why the novels I tend to pick up are life-and-death thrillers that also have a speculative component. I’m talking about genre-bending books. Mysteries or thrillers that could also sit on the shelf with horror novels, or dark fantasies, or anything supernatural or uncanny—where the known merges with the unknown, or what I’ve also heard described as the penumbral, regions of partial illumination and shadowy darkness. Regions of nightmares.

It was a vulture that led me to choose the Mojave Desert in California as the setting for my latest novel, No Beauties or Monsters. The extreme climate—a climate that you can feel through the windshield of your car, a summer heat that is nearly suffocating—seemed fitting for a mystery involving life-and-death stakes. Hikers disappearing near Joshua Tree National Park. Vultures circling.

But the Mojave, besides being known for its deadly environment, is also known for a long history of legends and lore. I’m talking about the realm of the inexplicable. Strange sightings in the sky, secret occult rituals, creatures lurking at night that can’t be real. The desert was the perfect place for the genre-bending young adult novel that I’d been imagining. A story about a remote desert town plagued by disappearances. A story about an alleged killer on the loose and the teenaged girl who has her reasons for tracking him, and in doing so, discovers unimaginable secrets about the desert where he’s hiding. In No Beauties or Monsters, there is the vast landscape of Joshua Tree National Park and of course fatal stakes in this harshest of environments, but there is also the territory of the uncanny—that penumbral space between the real and the unreal, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the waking life and the nightmare.

To me, this is the great intrigue of a genre-bending thriller. There should always be, without fail, a human face behind the mystery or the bloodshed, just like there is in No Beauties or Monsters. But whether or not there is a shadowy, inexplicable, perhaps unbelievable force also wielding terror… well, that’s why we read on till the very end. Here are some other genre-bending young adult novels with speculative elements that kept me reading till the very end too.

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House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland (mystery + dark fantasy + horror).

 House of Hollow begins with three young sisters who have been abducted. There is no real-world scenario that frightens me more. But a few years later the Hollow sisters are returned to their parents, seemingly unharmed, minus the disturbing change to their eyes—which have gone dark—and their hair color, which has gone white. What happened to the Hollow girls? And why don’t they remember? From that unsettling premise, Sutherland launches into a fairytale-esque modern fantasy that just gets darker and darker. Within its pages is one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever read, and—fair warning—it should be noted that the body horror is intense in this one. Although, if you’re like me, you’d follow the youngest Hollow sister anywhere, even down the very dark, and very dangerous, rabbit hole that is House of Hollow.

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White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson (thriller + ghost story).

California teenager Marigold Anderson is forced to move with her newly blended family to the Midwest for a fresh start. But the renovated house on Maple Street isn’t exactly idyllic, and the neighbors aren’t very welcoming either. On top of that, her younger step-sister keeps warning Mari that her imaginary friend wants her dead. As Mari gets closer and closer to the truth about the house on Maple, she places herself in increasingly treacherous situations, and the lies she tells her family start to stack up. White Smoke is unsettling—both for its illumination of racial and social inequalities, and its chilling, otherworldly scenes.

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Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco (murder mystery + historical).

This gothic novel centers on seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose, born to a lord, who hides behind lies and petticoats to learn the male-dominated profession of forensic medicine in 1880s London. When her mentor is drawn into a string of brutal murders that point at a seemingly inhuman killer, Audrey bravely rolls up her sleeves. And as the deaths escalate, she becomes obsessed with finding the killer, even when it means putting her own life—and perhaps even her soul—at risk.

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All These Bodies by Kendare Blake (crime/mystery + paranormal).

If you enjoyed Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—a genre-bending book of its own right—you should pick up All These Bodies. Set in 1950s small-town America, the novel opens with a truly beguiling murder scene: a fifteen-year-old girl found drenched in blood but unharmed, with an entire family murdered around her. All These Bodies reads like a faux true crime novel, ostensibly penned by Michael, an aspiring journalist, who is asked by the alleged young killer to tell her story to the media. But Michael is never sure if her strange confession is to be believed, even when he starts to experience his own uncanny moments in his search for answers.

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Illuminae co-authored by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (thriller + sci-fi).

A novel told through “hacked” documents including interview transcripts and classified reports, Illuminae is a sci-fi thriller set in space. The spaceship setting mixed with the epistolary format is part of the appeal, but so are the two teenaged protagonists, polar opposites Kady Grant and her ex-boyfriend Ezra Mason, who are both caught up in a vicious crime against humanity and forced to work together for their survival. The uncanny force at work in the novel is the fleet’s AI, a voice that hauntingly alternates between human and inhuman qualities.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (murder mystery + gothic).

Last but not least, this list of genre-bending YA novels would not be complete without mentioning Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told from the perspective of eighteen-year-old Merricat Blackwood, who lives in isolation with her uncle and older sister, Constance. The Blackwood sisters experienced a tragedy six years prior when their parents died (I won’t name how, for fear of spoilers), but suffice to say Merricat’s sister was blamed, and the town began to shun the surviving family members. From there, the strangeness intensifies, in part due to Merricat’s idiosyncratic voice as she relates just how much her small New England village despises the Blackwoods. You won’t be disappointed by this classic Shirley Jackson tale—though, if you’re like me, you might miss being immersed in the story after it comes to its twisted, inevitable end.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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