While I read extensively in many different genres, I often find young adult (Y/A) novels to be better written, more involving, more accessible, and more original than anything on adult bestseller lists. For a long time, the Y/A market has been overrun with wizards (thanks Harry Potter), dystopian futures (thanks Hunger Games), spies (thanks Alex Ryder and Young Bond), and sparkly vampires (thanks Twilight—or perhaps not). Recently, however, a new Y/A subgenre has emerged featuring anti-hero teen criminals.
From Parker (Richard Stark) to Quarry (Max Allan Collins) to Keller (Lawrence Block) and many others there is a long history of murderous criminal antiheroes in traditional adult mysteries. However, murderous is not a term usually applied to the hero/heroine—anti or not—in Y/A fiction. Y/A teen anti-hero criminals are not sociopaths. Y/A suspension of disbelief asks you to accept they are not really bad criminals, they’re just forced by circumstances—usually a parent in jeopardy—to turn to the dark side...
There are also other Y/A genre tropes in attendance: A difficult love interest; a group of talented BFFs (the computer wizard, the kid with money, somebody to do the heavy physical lifting); and adults whose only goal is to make life difficult for the protagonist. Personally, I’m willing to accept and work with these conventions, as they aren’t too different from the same conventions in other genres. If the main character is engaging, if the story zips along, if the plot is clever, and the dialogue snappy, I’m happy to go along for the ride.
With those things in mind, let’s look at some of the top Y/A reads featuring teens with criminal tendencies...
I’ve always enjoyed good caper stories in the style of the original Oceans 11, and Aly Carter’s caper heavy Heist Society series delivers a great teen take on the genre. Raised by a family of high end criminals, Katarina Bishop started her criminal career at three years old when her parents took her to case the Louvre in preparation for a heist. When she was seven, Kat and her uncle traveled to Austria to steal the crown jewels. Not exactly the upbringing experienced by most pre-teens.
Now fifteen, Kat is rebelling (of course), wanting to distance herself from the family business, but what would a good caper novel be without complications? When her father is suspected by a powerful mobster of stealing his priceless art collection, Kat has to take on an impossible job—find and steal back the paintings within two weeks with only the help of a gang of mismatched teens and her own sketchy criminal experience.
With its lavish settings, suspense, and whispers of romance, Heist Society echoes the lighthearted touch of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, or Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque. It’s a high tension, classy crime caper matched by the series two other titles, Uncommon Criminals and Perfect Scoundrels.
In another Y/A series, Mary Elizabeth Summer’s Trust Me, I’m Lying takes us away from glamorous capers and into the world of grifters and con men. Julep Dupree tells lies. A lot of them. She’s a con artist, a master of disguise, and a sophomore at Chicago’s swanky St. Agatha High.
Her father, an old-school grifter with a weakness for the ponies, has manipulated her admission to the private school so Julep can learn to mingle with the upper crust. For extra spending money, Julep runs petty scams for her classmates. When not pulling scams, she dodges the dean of students and pursues her dream of leaving a life of grifting behind for a shot at an expenses-paid golden ticket to Yale.
But when she comes home one day to find a ransacked apartment and her father missing, Julep’s carefully laid plans start to unravel. With help from an assortment of St. Agatha’s inmates, Julep struggles to trace her dad’s trail of clues through a maze of creepy stalkers, hit attempts, family secrets, and the threat of foster care.
Trust Me, I’m Lying and the sequel, Trust Me, I’m Trouble, are fast paced, smart mouthed, and clever narratives. Julep is a consummate grifter beginning to be plagued by her conscious while pulling every con she knows to get to rescue her father—and get the truth about the mother who abandoned her.
Pretty Crooked by Elisa Ludwig gives us Willa, a teen Robin Hood who takes from the rich kids at Valley Prep to give to poor students. Conforming to the genre, she’s a daredevil, has her eyes on Valley Prep’s notorious bad boy, and has to risk everything when her mother goes missing.
***Remember, I told you these teen criminal capers always seem to involve a parent in jeopardy in the same way you have to be an orphan to become a teen wizard.***
Pretty Crooked and its two sequels—Pretty Sly and Pretty Wanted—provide solid entertainment. Author Elisa Ludwig has also written a standalone teen caper novel, Coin Heist, in which a team of prep school geeks attempt to rob the U.S. Mint after discovering a security flaw on a field trip—making me wonder why none of my own school field trips were this exciting.
To close this list out, I want to mention Jennifer Lynn Barnes terrific series starting with The Naturals. While the other series in this column all feature kids with criminal tendencies, The Naturals is a teen take on Criminal Minds.
Seventeen-year-old Cassie Hobbs is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But, it's not a skill she's ever taken seriously. Then the FBI comes knocking with an offer for her to join a classified program using exceptional teenagers (naturals) to crack infamous cold cases.
There is quickly more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when Cassie is sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. In The Naturals, Killer Instinct, and All In, Cassie and her partners take on serial killers, madmen, and (of course) their biggest cold—the murder of Cassie’s mother.
Each of these series is sharply written with relatable characters and a sense the situations encountered aren’t simply fun and games. As in the best Y/A fiction, there are deeper layers behind the book blurbs and cover synopsis. If you enjoy Y/A novels, each series is worth checking out...