Friday, December 30, 2011

The Kick-Butt Girl Sleuth in 2011: A Rare Fictional Creature

I'm a huge fan of mystery novels.  I read my first Nancy Drew in 4th grade; once I had exhausted that all local libraries' supplies of that eternal series, I moved on to Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes.  But while I love these more complex mysteries (with murder and mayhem included), I missed seeing a teenage girl as the investigator.  There were a few short-lived possibilities on television (anyone remember The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo?) but nothing really caught on.  Then Veronica Mars was born.  Although the show struggled to last even three seasons (and the last two seasons hit some bumps), Veronica Mars stands out as one of the few recent attempts to create a true teen girl sleuth for the 21st century.  And I for one was absolutely thrilled.  I loved the show and love Veronica even more.  She was a great female protagonist, complex, conflicted, angry, vulnerable, brave, sexy, and flawed.  And she was a great detective.

In my library's most recent book orders, there have been a few young adult novels that heavily incorporate a mystery and an investigation of that mystery by the female protagonist.  In my constant search for the next literary Veronica Mars, I read each of them--but was generally a little disappointed.

The first mystery that I snagged after cataloguing was Rosebush by Michele Jaffe.  As it's striking cover demonstrates, this particular novel kicks off with a dramatic and mystery image: a few blocks away from a big Memorial Weekend party, popular and pretty Jane is found tangled and unconscious in a rosebush, the apparently the victim of hit and run.  As Jane, lying paralyzed in the hospital, attempts to regain her memories of the accident, she begins to understand that the truth--about that night, her friends, her boyfriend, and her past--is much more complicated than she thought.  And soon it appears that Jane's accident wasn't an accident at all and everyone in her life is a suspect.  Now Jane must unravel the mysteries surrounding her before the killer strikes again.  While this novel had a promising premise and great opening image, it was a disappointing reading experience for me.  The slow revelations of complexities through flashbacks and the inside view of the pretty, popular clique of girls reminded me a bit of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall and the setting among the seamy underside of the rich and privileged was reminiscent of Veronica Mars. But frankly, Jane is a less interesting character than either Sam or Veronica and the mystery here has almost too many twists and turns to remain believable.  So while I think that Rosebush might be a hit with some of my younger teens who like mysteries featuring the dark side of rich, pretty, and popular cliques, I was left unsatisfied in my quest for a solid teen girl detective.

Next, I snagged our new copy of The Liar Society, a debut novel written by Lisa and Laura Roecker.  When Kate gets an email from her best friend Grace, she's shocked and deeply confused--because Grace died a few months ago in a mysterious fire.  But when the messages begin to imply that Grace's death was not merely a tragic accident but the result of the tangled conspiracy of secrets filling the hallowed halls of their elite private school, Kate plunges into a dangerous investigation with the help of two new allies: her nerdy neighbor and the cute bad boy from school.  Firstly, this novel came much closer to the kind of teen mystery novel I was craving.  Kate is much more likable protagonist than Jane and a more effective detective.  The mystery was exciting and built well as more and more secrets and clues were revealed as the plot progressed.  I'm also a big sucker for secret society tales and this novel fits that bill very nicely.  Overall, it was a well-paced and fun mystery; The Liar Society reminded me a bit of both Veronica Mars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, although it didn't quite reach the level of complexity of either.

The last recently release young adult mystery featuring a teen girl sleuth I read this fall was my favorite, although it might be the most challenging to sell initially to teen readers.  The Girl Is Murder is delightful historical mystery by Kathryn Haines Miller set in 1942 New York City featuring plenty of juicy historical details, a solid mystery, and a determined young female detective.  15 year old Iris Anderson never used to lie--not about big things anyway.  Then her mother's suicide and her father's return from war missing a leg changed everything.  Suddenly, Iris has left her comfortable private school life far behind and entered the very different world of the Lower East Side, where she starts at a public school while her Pop struggles to get his private investigation business going again.  Money is tight and Iris knows that Pop could use her help--even if he doesn't know it yet.  So when his newest case involves a boy from Iris's school, she decides to do some investigating of her own.  Suddenly Iris is lying all the time, inventing identities and excuses as she tails her former private school classmates and sneaks out to Harlem club to dance until 3am.  Iris is a stubborn and smart young detective; she makes mistakes of inexperience and arrogance but overall she proves her skills as an beginning investigator.   The historical setting is solidly fleshed out with everything from slang to fashion to cultural tensions.  However, while both the mystery and the characters' developments are clearly tied to the time period, they remain interesting for a modern audience.  Iris is a great candidate to join the ranks of Nancy and Veronica and I hope Kathryn Miller Haines brings her back in at least one sequel so we can watch her investigative skills grow.

Here's hoping that 2012 brings us a new crop of teen mysteries and kick-butt girl sleuths!

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