Monday, March 09, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: What's With Mysteries?

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, one of the two books I'm stuck on this week, is as much a character study as it is a mystery. But it most defintely is classified as a mystery. It is spun off from the Sherlock Holmes mystery classics, after all. While my second book, The Dead Father's Club, is main stream fiction (its original material is Hamlet, remember), for me it developed a mysterious element. While I accepted the truth of what dead dad had to say at the beginning of the story, I began to wonder if he was all that reliable. Did Uncle Alan really do him in? Is he really a bad guy?

Child readers are notorious mystery lovers, and adult mysteries are often bridge books into adult reading, as Jen Robinson has said. (I kind of like the expression "gateway books," myself.)

Why the attraction to mysteries?

I think kids find mysteries comforting. At the beginning of very traditional mystery novels, the social order has been disrupted. A body has been found in the library. Jewels have been stolen. Someone has disappeared. At the end, the social order has been restored. The perp has been tracked down. Justice has been done. Things go back to the way they are supposed to be. What a relief.

Kids are instructed to stay in line. To be fair. To follow the rules. They have been taught to maintain order. They're comfortable with order. This may be a factor in tattling. What, exactly, is wrong with tattling? Why do we dislike it so much? All the tale bearers are trying to do is restore the order we've taught them to maintain.

With a mystery novel, kids can safely explore a disordered world because it's not the world they actually live in. The detective restoring order at the end of the story provides a satisfying conclusion. The world goes back to the way kids have been taught it should be.

An adult mystery that follows that pattern provides young readers with familiarity--the pattern itself. It also gives them the impression that the adult world is orderly like theirs. Grown-ups aren't supposed to do certain things, just as children aren't supposed to do certain things. If adults do them, justice will be done, and the adult world will go back to the way it's supposed to be.

A lie, of course, but that's beside the point.


Jen Robinson said...

I think that theory makes a lot of sense, Gail (why kids like mysteries). The funny symmetry is that I think a lot of adults like mysteries, as compared to "literary fiction", because it reminds them of the books that they loved as kids. Not so much the mystery itself, but the strong, what-happens-next sort of plot. And the mystery solver as strong, capable protagonist. I know I've never outgrown looking for those things in literature.

I'm enjoying your thoughts on this!

PiLibrarian said...

Adding to Jen's comment, I think that the empowerment of the detective (smart and brave) character is comforting (and empowering) to young readers. And the series factor -- multiple adventures with a known cast of characters -- is a big plus too.

A majority of my discretionary reading these days is adult series mysteries, for pretty much the same reasons. I also like series that include setting as a character, so I vicariously travel while I'm smart and brave, bringing bad guys to justice and restoring order in a chaotic world! :-)

Gail Gauthier said...

I can't claim to have thought up the bit about traditional mysteries restoring order. I've read that before, and the comfort they provide is supposed to be part of their attraction for adult readers, too.

Which makes me wonder why we read other kinds of mysteries--the noir hero as the lone person who still holds to any kind of code of behavior in an ugly world where good guys don't necessarily win, for instance.

Regarding the empowerment of the smart, brave detective--I have been wondering for years just why I read Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid because as an adult, I don't see what's attractive about him to a teen reader. But what I've finally recalled is that when I was a teenager, I wanted to be smart and even, you might say, learned, knowledgeable, like Holmes.

I got over that.

Author Tony Peters said...

Mysteries are great for kids. I loved them growing up and I find that kids still enjoy a good mystery, which is why as an author I have started out with children's mysteries. I agree with your theory and I love what Jen Robinson had to say.

Tony Peters
Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

Libby said...

I loved mysteries as a teenager for precisely these reasons, I think. The hard-boiled American noirish ones, though, disturbed me. (As did Ruth Rendell's; I still can't read her.)

At some point the lie--that order can and will be restored--got to be too much for me and I pretty much gave up reading mysteries. I got too worried about the crime and the solutions didn't satisfy me. But I still like the ones for kids, where the crimes (usually) are not too awful, and I can still indulge in the fantasy.

I agree with Jen, too, that mysteries may appeal to adult readers because they are like the books they read as kids. Genre fiction in general has the kind of "comfort food" quality that some kids' lit has--strong plot, a certain amount of predictability, resolution at the end, etc. I'd argue that the best kids' lit goes well beyond that, but there are still some commonalities.

Gail Gauthier said...

It's interesting you should bring up Ruth Rendell, Libby. She does write a contemporary English police procedural series, though it's been a while since I've read one, so I can't recall how dark they get. My recollection is that they do have a traditional mystery plot.

Then she does stand-alone books (both as Ruth Rendell and as Barbara Vine) that are extremely atmospheric and that don't necessarily restore order by any means. Main characters are not only not the "detective," they're often the perpetrator. Plot doesn't seem to be the most powerful element in many of those books.

My point being that she tries to address both the traditional, strong plot mysteries ("comfort food") and...something her writing. There's a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to her work.

She's not my idea of a gateway author for kid readers moving toward adult books. There's not a lot there that the average young reader will find familiar.

PiLibrarian said...

Gail, I *don't* read noir mysteries, at least not often and not for the same reasons as I dig into a series entry (Friday night entertainment!?) I do find them disturbing, without offering hope or personal challenge. On the other hand, I don't read cozies either.

I think I read Sherlock Holmes for the same reasons you did -- only I never got over wanting to be smart like Holmes (though I hope I have a better personality :-)

Gail Gauthier said...

He's a lot better in Beekeeper than I remember him. Much wittier.