Crime is the new black, it seems. You can’t turn on the television or walk into a bookshop at the moment without being confronted by serial killers and the detectives trying to outwit them.
This is nothing new, of course – from Jules Maigret to Hercule Poirot to Harry Hole, different kinds of detectives have been pursuing delinquents for more than a century in literature. Meanwhile on TV, grey-haired, blouse-wearing sleuths like Miss Marple have given way to the likes of The Killing’s dynamic detective Sarah Lund and her magnificent jumpers. Even 19th-century investigator Sherlock Holmes has been reincarnated. Twice, in fact – as a quick-witted (and equally quick-fisted) version played by Robert Downey Jr in a 2009
film adaptation; and also for the BBC’s Sherlock, which sees Holmes (in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch) retreating to his ‘Mind Palace’ when he needs to remember something.
The adult genre is far from cold in its grave (Nesbo sells a book every 23 seconds), so why are many of its stars – such as John Grisham, Harlan Coben and James Patterson – turning their hand to children’s books?
The personal approach
There is often a personal motivation for established authors take up to writing for children. James Bond creator Ian Fleming wrote Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang for his son Caspar. Patterson and Coben began writing children’s books for their offspring too, while the former launched the READKIDDOREAD website when he realised that his son Jack, in Patterson’s own words, “didn’t exactly love books”.
But why crime? Fleming wrote a book about a magical car, not a young Bond (that was left for Charlie Higson, years later). Coben, whose first young adult book, Shelter, was released last year, explains: “I had seen wizards, vampires, dystopia and fantasy done very well for young adults, but I hadn’t seen crime, mystery, thriller and reality-based adventure done quite as well.”
This not entirely new. Whether it’s Carolyn Keene’s 1930s girl detective Nancy Drew or Anthony Read’s slightly more recent
The Baker Street Boys series, about a gang of children working as assistants to Holmes himself, young readers have been devouring these sorts of stories for years. So what do writers more used to writing for adults bring to the table that bestselling children’s specialists aren’t doing already? Coben says: “My goal was to bring to teens what I try to bring to adults – stay-up-all-night suspense with real-world characters.”
Coben certainly does that very well in his adult books, but do younger readers want that? It’s challenging to include investigators and lawyers in children’s books because, as Sophie McKenzie, author of the Girl Missing thriller series, says readers “want main characters they can identify with at the heart of their stories”. Can a 16-year-old identify with a loose-cannon detective?
To look at it another way, Enid Blyton – with her stories of crime-busting chums, such as the Famous Five – has sold more than 600 million books. So you could be forgiven for thinking that what young readers actually want is sunny stories with lashings of ginger beer where our intrepid heroes are more likely to discover a cave full of gold than a dead body.
Lauren St John, author of the Laura Marlin Mysteries series, which follows an 11-year-old detective, agrees. “The best thing about kids’ thrillers is that you’re spared the grisly exploits of serial killers, without which few adult thrillers seem complete.” Her Laura is a feisty orphan who moves in with her uncle in Cornwall, where she investigates local mysteries. “Personally, that’s how I like my crime fiction,” says St John, “wholesome!”
Likewise, Grisham’s “kid lawyer” Theodore Boone, hero of an eponymous series, has been described as “an old head on young shoulders” by Philip Ardagh in his review for the Guardian. Theodore Boone, Young Lawyer has no car chases and no explosions, and when Boone finds something pertinent, he tells his parents. St John calls it a “less graphic version” of Grisham’s adult books. So we’ll have none of your dismembering, thank you, just some good old-fashioned mystery. As for all you tortured detectives with your alcohol issues, we’ll stick to the raspberry pop, thanks.
Back to reality
Once authors take all of the ‘grown-up’ drama out, do kids end up with a book that is just a diluted adult one? “You still get edge-of-your-seat suspense, the triumph of underdog and outsider amateur detectives,” St John says, “but many of them deal with very important issues.” And she’s right. A quick scan though the children’s section of your local bookshop will reveal stories about everything from smuggling to alternative medicine. St John’s own books deal with modern-day slavery, trafficking endangered species and race-fixing – hardly tame issues.
One thing young readers can spot a mile off is fakery. Chris Ould, author of the upcoming young adult novel Street Duty: Knock Down, a story about Holly Blades, a 16-year-old trainee police officer, says: “A significant percentage of teenagers encounter crime in one form or another in their everyday lives, and in the Street Duty series I wanted to deal with that in a realistic way. I didn’t want to make concessions by sanitising the effects of crime – or the world in which it takes place – just because I was writing for young adults. That’s patronising and misleading.”
Ould has a point; the best ‘youth’ television shows – from Grange Hill to Doctor Who and Skins – have never patronised their audience,
so why should books? Coben agrees. “The teenage audience is rightfully demanding. Shelter and the upcoming Seconds Away are very similar to my adult novels – the major difference is the age of the characters. So perhaps the line between young adult novels and adult novels is thinner than ever before. You have to respect the fact that teens don’t want it simplified, and they don’t want to be talked down to. That’s a good thing.”
Ould adds: “Clearly, young adults want plots and characters they can relate to, but the stories have to be as hard-hitting, pacy and intriguing as any adult novel – perhaps more so.” He agrees with Coben that the audience can be more demanding, but claims that it’s no bad thing. “It should keep a writer sharp and force them to be innovative,” Ould asserts.
McKenzie says this invention is fundamental. “To me, story is all-important: a central premise that is fresh and compelling, and plot and characters that develop in unexpected yet convincing ways. Children’s fiction generally has a far stronger emphasis on story than a lot of adult fiction.”
Whether they are about wizards, talking dogs or trainee police officers, the stories may change – even the way they are read is changing – but the desire to consume them never will. And whether we’re six, 16 or 60, we will always want the good guy to win.
The best new young adult crime
by Peter Cocks
The second in Cocks’ Eddie Savage series after Long Reach, this is a gritty thriller about undercover work set in a Spanish milieu of drug dealers and bad boys. Think Bond meets Sexy Beast.
Street Duty: Knock Down
by Chris Ould
Though not out until October, this is an interesting twist on young adult crime, using the convincing idea of young trainee
police. Note that it contains tough, serious themes. Refreshingly, it also stars a girl.
Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill
by Alexander McCall Smith
More gentle than the other books here, this title reveals what Precious Ramotswe did before founding the Number One
Ladies’ Detective Agency. Old-fashioned fun.
by Sophie McKenzie
From the highly acclaimed queen of teen thrillers, Missing Me follows teenage Madison and her attempts to track down herbiological father.
Heart-shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne (an adult crime novel) is out now, published by Headline.