This year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, and three crime writers for young adults – Anne Cassidy, Chris Ould and Gregg Olsen – are sharing the stage in an event for ages 13+ entitled ‘Murder Mystery?’. The occasion is a mark of just how mainstream crime and thriller writing for teenagers now is. With bestselling writers like Harlan Coben and James Patterson having turned to crime for a younger audience of late, it seems that the genre is here to stay.
But is it really such a new genre? From the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, to our very own Famous Five, children and young adults have been solving mysteries in fiction for decades. As has Anne Cassidy, who has been writing for teenagers in this genre for over 20 years. ‘I’m probably the only writer who has done that exclusively. I’m hoping I’m now going to come into fashion. I’d love to go into Waterstones and see a Teen Crime Fiction section’. Cassidy’s latest novel is Dead Time, the first in her four book Murder Notebooks series which follows the story of teenagers Rose and Joshua, bound together by the unsolved disappearance of their parents.
Though a much newer writer on the teen crime fiction block, BAFTA-winning screenwriter Chris Ould has been writing gritty drama for television for the past fifteen years, including numerous episodes of The Bill. ‘I started writing fiction for younger readers because I have a son aged 9, and I was becoming aware of how reading drops off for boys after a certain age. I wanted to write something to keep them reading’. With his in-depth knowledge of police procedure, Ould felt he had the basic framework to attempt a police series in book form. The result is Street Duty: Knock Down the first in a youth crime series featuring sixteen year old Trainee Police Officers, a fictional rank in the tradition of the old police cadet force, created by Ould after he read an article about apprenticeships.
Top US crime writer Gregg Olsen turned to writing crime for young adults after building up a huge following for his adult crime novels. Prior to that, he was also a New York Times bestselling writer of true crime. Whilst acknowledging that writing crime fiction and true crime are entirely different disciplines, with surprisingly separate readerships, Olsen has definitely drawn on his experience as a true crime writer for his young adult novels. ‘I’ve been with real people who have lost a parent, or a child to murder. They are my people, and that really helps me pull from all the layers around a killing’. Olsen has just published Betrayal, his second crime novel for young adults, inspired by the Amanda Knox case. Envy, his first was based on a real-life case of cyber-bullying which resulted in the death of a teenager. Both feature sixth-sensed investigative teen twins, Hayley & Taylor Ryan
With ‘making it real’ a major requirement of this type of writing, it’s hardly surprising that all three writers have in some way brought their own experience to their YA novels. Like Olsen, Ould has employed his knowledge of real cases, albeit mainly from the police perspective. ‘When I was writing for The Bill, I used to tag along with the police and see everything first-hand’. He has since kept in touch with the police advisors to the programme. Whilst counting herself fortunate never to have been the victim of crime, former secondary school teacher Anne Cassidy is, she says ‘one of life’s pessimists. When my son was younger, he had four phones stolen, one of them at knifepoint. So I know that teenagers suffer crime. For many, it’s a part of their lives, just as sex and drugs are’. And she too has been inspired by real-life cases for her fiction, most notably in her acclaimed novel, Looking for JJ which drew on the Jamie Bulger, and Mary Bell cases, both of which involved child murderers. ‘When I read the papers, certain cases just stay in my head’, she says. It isn’t quite as simple as weaving a bit of a story around a real case to achieve a sense of authenticity however. ‘If a real case resonates with me, then I tend to think it will resonate with the reader as well. But I still have to make it my own’, says Cassidy. ‘The plot is the easy bit, the emotional reality the difficult bit’.
Despite his extensive first-hand experience of police work, Chris Ould’s inspiration doesn’t necessarily come from real-life cases. ‘I try to be as procedurally accurate as it’s possible to be, whilst making sure that my actual stories also ring true. To do this, rather than reading about specific cases in the paper, and thinking ‘that’s a good story’, I start with the characters and what’s interesting about them.’
Gregg Olsen confesses to having ‘ripped off every aspect of my life for my books’. This includes not only his experiences as a true crime writer but as the father of twin girls himself. He vividly remembers their teen years, and what it felt like to be ‘trapped in a sea of oestrogen’. ‘Whilst I want to hook my young adult readers in to my novels and keep them there, my books are less about the crime and more about the layers of the family story which surrounds it. In YA novels, you definitely have to let the characters tell the story’.
Do our writers feel a responsibility to spare young adult readers the violence and graphic gore which now routinely pervades crime novels for adults? ‘I don’t want to glamorise crime, but I want my books to be realistic portrayals of real-life situations, and how the police deal with them’, says Chris Ould. ‘There’s no point in pretending teenagers don’t know about this stuff. A lot of adults kid themselves they don’t know, but they do. There are a lot of savvy, streetsmart kids out there. For them, this has to be realistic. And for the kids who are not, my books give them a window on a world they don’t see’.
Gregg Olsen agrees. ‘Teenagers today see so much on TV and via the internet that you can’t make it soft. I don’t spare the gory details when I need to. Readers of all ages like to squirm a bit. But my books aren’t really brutal; not compared with something like The Hunger Games. And although I’m aware that teenagers have sex, take drugs and swear, these things aren’t really relevant in my stories, so I don’t go there. There’s a murder in each book, sure, but really that’s not what they are about’.
Though an avid reader of adult crime fiction, Anne Cassidy is not a big fan of the grisly plots which currently prevail. ‘I’m bit fed up with serial killers. For me, there is enough horror in the mere fact of killing someone. That’s the worst thing you can do – take the life of a person. Writing about torture chambers and the like just turns it into pantomime. Although I want my violence to be ugly, because it is; for me less is more. You hint at things rather than looking at them head-on’.
All three writers have clearly thought hard about the amount of sex, violence and swearing that should go into their YA novels. But merely by dint of the subject matter, age-ranging their teen crime fiction is a potentially thorny issue. Cassidy’s Dead Time comes without an age recommendation but contains nothing that should perturb a 12-year old. By dint of the age of his characters (and, he points out, ‘the glamorous dead girls on the covers’), Olsen’s are pitched at older teens but have also won praise from reviewers for treading the fine line between YA and adult crime fiction with ‘just the right shade of darkness to be enjoyed by both’, according to We Love This Book.
By contrast, Chris Ould’s Street Duty: Knock Down – although it does not actually contain a murder – comes with a warning about its ‘explicit language and content’ and a recommended age of 15+. Its author is ambivalent about adult ‘gate-keeping’ however. ‘Clearly I wouldn’t want an 11 or 12 year old reading these stories, or my 9 year old son because they are not appropriate in language or content. But how far do you go? Does this mean that I shouldn’t put certain things in my books just because a 9 year old MIGHT pick them up? In my view it’s patronising to inflict adult sensibilities on teenagers’.
More interesting actually than the somewhat hackneyed age-ranging argument, is the complexity and subtlety which experienced writers are bringing to crime writing for young adults. While his books for adults and for teenagers has much in common, Gregg Olsen points to a slight change of tone between the two. ‘There’s a certain lightness on the page, a snarky black humour which you won’t find in my adult novels. Young people are always making dark and funny observations and I wanted to reflect that’.
The degree of subtlety which YA novels require is an aspect of writing that Chris Ould has particularly enjoyed, because it is in marked contrast to what is required in his work for television. ‘Writing a novel, you can’t rely on a translator – i.e. a director or script editor – to deal with the nuances. And I like the pared-back approach of fiction. It allows the reader to bring their own baggage to it much more so than just watching it on TV’.
This is no throwaway genre. To do it well, crime-writing for young adults requires a thoughtful and responsible approach, as well as an in-depth understanding of the audience. But the potential rewards are great. Gregg Olsen for one, is having a ball. ‘I’ve loved every minute of writing for this audience. I love the readers. Adults read my books, and then put them quietly away. My young adult readers are so engaged with every aspect, from the cover to the smallest detail in the story. It’s the happiest writing experience I’ve ever had’.
Caroline Sanderson is a writer, editor and reviewer.