Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Be Back by Eleven!": Challenges Young Sleuths Face in Fiction

Welcome to "Case Files From Our Detectives." Every Tuesday, we take turns blogging on a particular topic. Since launching this blog in September, we've blogged on these topics so far: How We Came to Mystery Writing, Writing in the Dark, and "Book 'Em": Our Favorite Mysteries of 2011/Most Anticipated Mysteries of 2012. If you're a new follower or just discovering us now, you can always go back and read our Case Files in the archives, as well as our rotating Thursday features. They're listed in the upper right sidebar.

Today we're launching our fourth Tuesday topic: Sleuths. For the next seven weeks, we'll discuss our favorite young sleuths. They've come a long way since Nancy Drew. (Though some of us happen to like her too). Along the way, we'll be investigating some of these issues: What makes a kid or teen sleuth memorable? What young detectives in fiction have influenced our writing? What are some traits of young investigators, and what would we like to see more of? Or less of? How do sidekicks help or hinder sleuths? And is it possible to say the word "sleuths" without spitting? (OK, maybe we won't dwell on that last one).

Today I'm kicking off this Tuesday topic with a two-part question I often wrestle with: What are some of the challenges young sleuths face in fiction? And how can writers creatively turn these challenges into assets?

Challenges Kid/Teen Sleuths Can Face:
Serving ice cream? Or collecting DNA samples?
  • Lack of professional connections and resources. Accompanying this challenge: lack of knowledge about the law or police procedures. One way around this problem is to have a sleuth with a family member in law enforcement or law. Conveniently, Nancy Drew is the daughter of a lawyer; Cameryn Mahoney, the star of Alane Ferguson's forensics mystery series, is the daughter of a county coroner. But even with connections and help, young sleuths can't access every piece of information available to their adult counterparts. And the majority of young investigators have no such professional connections. 
  • Time constraints. Between school, part-time jobs, and extracurricular activities, young people are often heavily scheduled. When sleuthing becomes a full-time job or keeps you up all night, what becomes of your math homework? Do child investigators realistically have enough hours in the day to pursue a suspect or track down leads? 
  • Transportation problems. Nancy Drew had that classy blue convertible, but many sleuths -- especially if they are under sixteen -- don't have wheels. This can make pursuing a suspect or fleeing bad guys somewhat problematic. 
  • Cash flow problems. What if your prime suspect jets off to Europe? The teen sleuth who works part-time in an ice-cream shop likely cannot follow him there. A kid's meager weekly allowance may not supply enough cash to pay admission into places that might reveal clues, such as a museum or a fancy restaurant. (A notable exception would be found in Ally Carter's novels. If a sleuth has connections to organized crime or some other significant income source, it's really, really helpful!)
  • Curfews. Sleuthing by moonlight? That's great, but be back by eleven! Many criminals operate under the cover of darkness, and clues may lurk in the shadows. But curfews and other parental rules may put a damper on a moonlighting sleuth. Is it any wonder young investigators are frequently depicted creeping in and out of their bedroom windows at night?
  • Lack of voice in society. I think a great challenge young people face is being heard by adults and taken seriously. Adults can be quick to judge erratic behavior and easily assume the worst. This may make it hard for a teen sleuth to seek adult advice or to approach authorities with information.
Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

If I had dwelled too long on these obstacles, I never would have finished my own YA mystery novel. The list of challenges can be paralyzing. I do like to think about the obstacles young sleuths face in order to keep my young adult details realistic, but I also want to move on and get my main character on the trail. So I also like to see how other writers have dealt with these challenges and creatively found solutions. For example:
  • Kids may lack resources, but they can be resourceful. They can position themselves as "experts" or  "professionals" and set up their own networks or teams, without relying on adults. Yes, they may get in over their head, but that makes for a compelling story, too. Examples: Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer (John Grisham), The Fourth Stall (Chris Rylander).
  • Kids' scheduled activities can put them in the path of mystery. In Peter Abrahams' Echo Falls mystery trilogy, eighth-grader Ingrid Levin-Hill juggles community theatre, school, soccer practice, orthodontist appointments, Math Fest, and sleuthing. Whew! She is one busy girl. But these activities present a rich palette of opportunities in which she can track down clues, analyze suspects, and confront villains. And in fact the whole series kicks off with a detour Ingrid takes on the way home from an orthodontist appointment. If she didn't have to get her braces tightened that day, we might not have had this trilogy! Kids don't have to find dead bodies in dark allies. They can stumble across a great mystery in their day-to-day life, which is full of a rich array of people.
  • Kids who go out of their way to solve mysteries are highly motivated. I've read books where young sleuths drive without a license to flee bad guys, or hack into a computer system to get vital information, or tamper with evidence at a crime scene to retrieve a personal belonging, or cut school in order to pursue a suspect, or lie to get into places they cannot afford to enter. It's ironic that so many young sleuths end up breaking the law in order to bring a criminal to justice! It's also exciting. Stories with young sleuths who will defy rules and expectations in pursuit of their goal usually have high stakes. (I wrote more about this issue of motivation last week).
  • Kids have the perfect cover. They can often slip into places unnoticed, or not be seen as investigators. (In fact, this is the entire premise of Robert Muchamore's long-running CHERUB series, in which a top-secret branch of the British Secret Service recruits orphan children and trains them as intelligence officers. The targets don't suspect innocent children, so these young agents fly under the radar). 
Are there any other obstacles young sleuths can face because of their stage of life? Have you seen other creative solutions to these issues? If you're a mystery writer yourself, how do you deal with these challenges? 


Diana was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. She also works as a freelance writer and editor in educational publishing, and has authored several ESL textbooks (which is way more exciting than it sounds). TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, coming June 14, 2012) is her first novel.


  1. Thanks for this, Diana. As I write, I, too, am often trying to think around problems kids' face because of their ages. In middle grade writing, it's especially tough to make the stakes high enough AND create reasons for the parents, FBI, regular police to either be idiotic and/or not involved.

  2. Yes, that's definitely another issue to grapple with -- why parents and authorities don't get involved. How to give kids enough freedom and plausible reason to investigate on their own.

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