Resisting the Dead Girl Trope in YA Mysteries and Thrillers

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I love the mystery and thriller genre, but like many readers, I’ve grown weary of the mysteries that position women as the perpetual victims, murdered and brutalized for our entertainment, and often sexualized and sensationalized along the way. This is not a new issue, especially in the realm of adult mystery and thrillers, and I’m on constant alert for mysteries for all ages that are told from the perspective of the marginalized and don’t cross the line from realistic to gratuitous when it comes to violence and harm toward girls and women. They can be difficult to find! In an effort to shed some light on mystery books that aren’t all about female suffering, it was proposed among Rioters that Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder challenge include a “read a mystery without any violence towards women” challenge. As Jamie Canaves writes in her great breakdown of these issues, that was unfortunately a bit impossible to pull off, so we had to amend the challenge to “read a mystery novel where the victim(s) is not a woman” because even if a woman isn’t the victim of the big crime, oftentimes women still face violence, danger, and death throughout the course of an investigation.

I’ve faced similar challenges in my own writing. While my first two novels star female sleuths investigating the murders of male characters and generally remain pretty light in tone, women aren’t completely safe in those stories. And that’s because women aren’t safe in the real world, full of misogyny as it is. It can be a delicate balance writing about the very real violence women face, and crossing over to gratuitous territory. When writing for teenagers, I think it’s especially important to think about the ways we frame violence towards women, especially teenage girls, and not take for granted that all victims ought to be female or that their deaths are overly sensationalized or sexualized.

With the explosion of mystery and thriller novels in YA in recent years, it’s fair to wonder if YA faces the same issues of female victimhood that has been so prevalent in adult mystery and thrillers for decades. While it’s impossible to do a direct comparison to adult mysteries and thrillers (because I have not read every mystery novel out there, and it would take more time than I have to conduct a comprehensive survey), I was surprised at how many YA mysteries I was able to identify with male victims at the center. Now, just because there’s a male victim at the center of a novel doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is good or without misogyny of other issues. For example, most of Karen McManus’s books start off with a male murder victim, but I do think that the ending of One of Us is Lying is a problematic depiction of mental health struggles. And this doesn’t even dive into the nuances of gender and how trans women, nonbinary people, and gender nonconforming people experience violence at much higher rates than cis people. (For a good YA true crime book that touches on this, check out The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater.)

All of this to say: it’s a messy, complicated issue, but I do hope that we continue to see more thoughtful mystery novels that don’t have female victims as the default. I also hope we get to see more YA mystery novels with people from marginalized backgrounds as sleuths and protagonists, solving mysteries and uncovering crimes in their communities while pursuing justice. One of the reasons why I love reading mysteries is because they are oftentimes a reflection of our communities and an exploration of our complexities and humanity, and I want those stories to be as diverse and varied as the world around me. So while we do have a long ways to go in terms of inclusion and diversity, I am heartened by these 12 great YA books that don’t have female victims as the central victim — just be advised that female characters may come to harm in other ways.

White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig cover image

White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

In this thrilling mystery, Rufus receives a phone call from his half-sister, April, one steamy 4th of July night — she’s just woken up next to the bloody, lifeless body of her boyfriend, but she swears she didn’t kill him. Now Rufus and his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian, have until the sun rises to figure out what really happened to him and clear April’s name.

cold book cover

Cold by Mariko Tamaki

Georgia’s normal, boring life is interrupted with the awful news that a teenage boy named Todd has been found dead in a nearby park. Because his body was found naked, the police consider his death suspicious. Georgia just so happens to be in possession of a surprising, unlikely tidbit of information about Todd that will throw into question the circumstances of his death and have her reconsidering the nature of friendship and complicity as Todd’s death marks a transition into adulthood.

The Best Lies cover image

The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu

Remy Tsai has a horrible home life, but at least she’s lucky to have her best friend Elise, and her adoring boyfriend Jack. But when Jack is shot one awful night and Elise is arrested for the crime, Remy is questioned by the police and must face the painful truths that she’d been avoiding about her relationships, including who really is at fault for Jack’s tragic death.

Book cover of Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Jay is a senior in high school in Michigan who only keeps in sporadic contact with his cousin, Jun, who lives a very different life from his own in the Philippines. But when Jay receives the news that Jun has been shot by the police and there will be no investigation, he can’t stand not knowing what really happened. He heads to the Philippines for spring break, hoping to uncover the truth about Jun’s last months and his tragic death.

A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee book cover

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

In general I think Lee’s Agency series is excellent for its insight into Victorian life (that isn’t limited to the white citizens of London), and I love how Lee comes up with great mystery plots that don’t necessarily hinge on murder (although there is murder throughout the series). In this series starter, orphan and one-time child thief Mary is inducted into a secret espionage agency run by women and tasked with infiltrating a wealthy merchant’s house to glean information about why his ships keep disappearing.

The Obsession cover

The Obsession by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Logan loves Delilah — she just doesn’t know it yet. Delilah is too busy trying to survive in a household where her mom’s abusive boyfriend controls everything to even think about dating. But one day, Delilah snaps…and her mom’s boyfriend ends up dead. Everyone thinks it’s a terrible accident and Delilah lets them believe it. She starts thinking about her future again, and she even starts dating a cute boy named Logan…until Logan reveals the he knows what Delilah did. And he has proof. Now Delilah has to figure out how to get away with murder, and how to get away from Logan.

These Shallow Graves cover

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

Set in the Gilded Age New York, this book follows Jo Montfort, a young lady who dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter rather than finding a husband. When her father is found dead and the authorities declare it an accidental death, Jo finds it difficult to believe that her father died while cleaning his pistol and sets out to find the truth, aided by a young reporter at her father’s newspaper.

cover of Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

Although this book is specifically about the many ways that men can and do take advantage of teenage girls, this is a mystery that also starts out with the death of a man. Korey Fields is found dead in his penthouse, and Enchanted Jones wakes up drenched in his blood, unsure of what happened. The book jumps through time, telling the story of how she met Korey, how he used and abused her, and what led to that fateful night.

This Is Our Story cover

This Is Our Story by Ashley Elston

Kate’s internship at her small town’s District Attorney’s office is mostly pushing paper, but it gets exponentially more interesting when her boss is handed the case of four teenage boys who went out hunting, only for one of them to turn up dead. The evidence points to murder, although it’s inconclusive about who exactly is responsible. Those in power want the case to be swept under the rug, so Kate seizes the opportunity to discover the truth.

Keep This To Yourself cover image

Keep This To Yourself by Tom Ryan

A year ago, Mac’s best friend Connor was killed by a serial killer who terrorized their small town and then abruptly stopped, seeming to vanish. Now, Mac has just received a weird message that could only come from Connor, and it’s got him questioning everything about the case and the entire town’s assumption that the killer was some unknown drifter. But the deeper he digs, the more danger he uncovers.

Along the Indigo cover

Along the Indigo by Elsie Chapman

Marsden lives in Glory, a town with a seedy side and a reputation for bodies that wash up on the river bank. Marsden has been planning her escape for a while, ever since her dad died, and she’s not above stealing items from the dead along the river to help fund her escape. But when she meets Jude, another outsider like her, he asks for her help in investigating a mystery surrounding his dead brother, drawing them both closer to the town’s darkness.

You Owe Me a Murder cover

You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook

When Kim’s boyfriend, Connor, dumps her in the worst possible way and then has the gall to get together with another girl on their class trip to London, Kim is left seething. She meets Nikki in the airport and over the course of their long flight, they vent and share frustrations about Connor and Nikki’s controlling mother. Nikki jokingly suggests they should murder each other’s problem, but Kim laughs it off…until Connor is killed just days later. And now it appears that Nikki expects Kim to uphold her end of the bargain.

Want more YA mysteries and thrillers for your TBR? Check out this list of queer YA mysteries and thrillers!