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Juvenile Delinquents: 5 of the Best Young Adult Crime Novels

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Simon Owens and Mary Holmes found this witty
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The genre of young adult crime novels, often conjures up images of Nancy Drew climbing shadowy staircases, or The Hardy Boys with their flashlights out. These characters were all icons in their own time, and while they still remain very popular among many readers, there are many others find them very dated and repetitive, even in their revised editions. Fortunately, the genre of young adult literature crime and mystery has grown and developed massively in the last few decades. There’s a wealth of sub-genres to choose from, everything from gritty and gory thrillers to supernatural mysteries.


Whatever the type of mystery, what is consistent in these stories is a young protagonist, who acts as detective or investigator to uncover the truth and solve a mystery. These protagonists are a big part of the appeal of this genre of books. As they are typically in their teenage years (or a bit older), they are generally too young to be part of official investigations. Instead they must attempt to carry out their informal investigations outside the protection of the law, and with none of the official resources. There’s a kind of scrappy, ‘make-do’ sense of fun to these stories, where the young hero finds themselves way out of their depth, keeping one step ahead of danger, and attempting to solve the case on their own. The young heroes of the five books below come from a range of backgrounds, from different times and places, but they’re united in their adventurous spirit and their need to find out the truth. They constitute just five of our favourite young adult sleuths, but there’s plenty more to uncover, so if there are any you feel are sorely missing, please leave them in the comments below. 

City of Saints & Thieves

City of Saints and Thieves opens in Sangui City, Kenya, where we are introduced to Tina, a Congolese refugee, who has become an expert thief in order survive on the streets. When she first arrived in Sangui City with her mother, everything seemed to be finally coming right for them. Her mother got a job as a maid with the prominent and wealthy Greyhill family, and they began to settle into their new lives. However, Tina soon began to discover the corruption that lies behind the Greyhill fortune, so when her mother was discovered and shot to death, she knew where to place the blame. Since then, her life devolved into a constant fight for survival, working as a thief for the local gang, the Goondas. Now only two things have any importance to Tina, looking out for her half sister Kiki, and getting revenge for her mother. When she is finally given the chance to avenge her mother however, Tina finds there is perhaps more to the story than she had anticipated. Along with her tech-savvy partner in crime Boyboy, Tina delves into a mystery that may cost them their lives.

The book’s is structured to paint a picture of Anderson’s protagonist, each chapter of the story is framed through Tina’s rules for survival. These rules highlight her no-nonsense, and capable character, as well as her vulnerability as a young teenage girl in a dangerous lifestyle. Anderson’s writing is wonderfully detailed, while Sangui City is a fictional setting, Anderson draws on her many years living and working across Africa to deliver a nuanced portrayal of cultural and landscape. Her text is scattered with Swahili words and phrases, and she successfully weaves modern pop culture references with local slang, which gives the book a great sense of place and character.

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I Hunt Killers

Following the enormous popularity of TV shows such as Criminal Minds, and Dexter, it is hardly surprising to find a growing number of young adult crime novels that delve into the crimes and minds of serial killers. Among these is Barry Lyga’s riveting thriller I Hunt Killers. Lyga’s teenage protagonist, Jazz has had a complicated childhood, to say the least. The son of an prolific serial killer, Jazz was brought up in crime scenes. Now that his father has been sent to jail, Jazz wants to his unique insights on criminals to good use. When a body is found in his hometown of Lobo’s Nod, no one will believe that it’s another serial killer attack, but Jazz thinks otherwise. With the help of his haemophiliac best friend Howie, Jazz begins his own investigation. What follows is a gripping and fast-paced thriller, with plenty of danger and violence. Along with the required blood-and-guts factor from this kind of story, Lyga also delves into the psychological struggles of Jazz’s traumatic upbringing. Lyga draws the reader in with his charismatic teen protagonist, but soon Lyga begins to erode the veneer of Jazz’s casual charm. The ending doesn’t quite satisfy as it leaves the story open for the following sequels, however I Hunt Killers remains a fun and thrilling mystery story.

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The Emperor's Ring: The Adventures of Feluda

Satyajit Ray is perhaps best remembered as an one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. However, Ray’s success was not limited to filmmaking, he was also a beloved author, in particular due to his detective series The Adventures of Feluda. His detective protagonist Feluda originated in a children’s magazine Sandesh in 1965, but Ray soon moved the character into his own novels. Feluda, a Bengali man in his late twenties, is everything you might wish for in a detective hero, upstanding, funny, well-read, and razor-sharp. His many exploits to uncover the criminal world are told through the eyes of his teenage cousin Topshe, who acts as Feluda’s own Dr. Watson, chronicling their various adventures. As the novels continued, the duo are later joined by a popular thriller writer Jatayu. Together they explore across India in pursuit of criminal activity, the stories read almost as travelogues, diving into the wondrous landscapes of various Indian locales. The stories were wildly popular, partly due to Ray aiming them at a wider audience, embracing young adult readership, and they have remained a staple feature of Bengali literature for decades. The first in the series, The Emperor’s Ring, begins with Feluda and Topshe on a family holiday in Lucknow. When a priceless Mughal ring is stolen, the two find themselves in search of a daring criminal, a search that takes them into a host of thrilling and dangerous settings. 

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Dreamland Burning

In this her second young adult crime novel, Jennifer Latham interweaves historical fiction with murder mystery. The book follows two narratives, both set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but separated by a span of almost a hundred years. The first story, set in modern times, follows Rowan Chase, a 17-year-old girl who finds a skeleton on her family’s property. As she delves into the story behind this gruesome discovery Rowan begins to uncover the forgotten history of her town and the implications this will have on her own life. The second story, set in 1921, follows another 17-year-old, William Tillman. After a misguided act of violence, William finds himself at the centre of a racial firestorm. Latham delves into issues of race, racial aggression, and the historical legacies of this kind of violence.

Written in first person, the writing feels fresh and immediate, drawing the reader into a world that feels very believable. It is clear that Latham has done a wealth of research on the history surrounding her mystery. She shines a spotlight on the oft-overlook Tulsa race-riot, while weaving this historical event into her own gripping narrative. The characters feel real, which is especially important for a story so situated in time and place. Latham manages to deftly balance the expectations of a young adult audience while conveying the gruesome reality of the situations described. 

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Marina

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is most famous for his best-selling adult thriller, The Shadow of the Wind, but he has also written many novels for young adults. The last and perhaps best of these YA books is his Gothic mystery novel Marina. As you might expect from a Zafón novel, most of the action in Marina takes place in the city streets of Barcelona. The protagonist Oscar Drai is a boarding school student who has taken to sneaking out to explore some of the older parts of the city. These wanderings lead him into a dilapidated manor house where he meets an enigmatic artist, Germán Blau and his teenage daughter Marina. In Marina, Oscar finds a new companion for his secretive exploring, however when this leads the two teenagers to observe a macabre ceremony, they become drawn into solving a deadly mystery.

It’s easy to get swept up in this book as the story twists and turns and the sinister conspiracy spreads out across Barcelona. Zafón has a wonderful sense of atmosphere in his writing, in Marina the shadowy streets and alleys of Barcelona unfurl to reveal more and more mysteries behind each corner. There’s a real sense of love in Zafón’s descriptions of the architecture, the tumble-down houses and ornate spires give a real sense of place, while also adding to the atmosphere of Gothic intrigue. Ever treading the line between real world and fantasy, Zafón’s writing is captivating and perfect for stories of mystery, danger, and romance.

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I love to read, cook, and travel. My favourite books are anything Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but I also love non-fiction history and self-help.

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