It’s hard enough to be a teenager without having to deal with, say, ghosts, disappearances or murder. In this trio of YA mysteries, smart and determined girls do whatever it takes to solve the case.
When All the Girls Are Sleeping
Never has a supply closet been so ominous as in Emily Arsenault’s slow-burning gothic mystery, When All the Girls Are Sleeping. The site of said closet is Dearborn Hall, the senior dorm at Windham-Farnswood Academy. Until last year, the closet was room 408, home to the mercurial Taylor Blakey. In the wee hours of a frigid February night, screams echoed down the hallway, and Taylor’s lifeless body was found on the ground beneath her open window. Since that night, Taylor’s former room has become a taboo space, intentionally ignored and never entered . . . or has it?
Haley Peppler, Taylor’s erstwhile best friend, isn’t so sure. She’s skeptical of rumors about the ghostly Winter Girl who supposedly haunts Dearborn Hall. But lately, unexplainable things have been happening around the closet (its window left open during a freeze, whispers emanating from within), and Haley is starting to think there really could be something supernatural afoot.
When Haley receives a strange video filmed the night of Taylor’s death, it heightens her unease and spurs her to investigate: Is there another explanation for Taylor’s demise than the flimsy story the school offered? As Haley researches Dearborn Hall’s colorful history, Arsenault does an excellent job of unfurling a centuries-old mystery within the context of this contemporary tale.
Carefully timed flashbacks and revelations make for a tantalizingly suspenseful read. Using newspaper archives, social media and interviews, Haley unearths plausible motives and suspicious sorts aplenty, contributing to the book’s atmosphere of increasing dread. As the anniversary of Taylor’s death looms, a thought-provoking undercurrent of class conflict and unresolved anger adds urgency to Haley’s quest for the truth. When All the Girls Are Sleeping is a spooky and compelling examination of what truly haunts us.
On prom weekend, Claire Keough and her closest friends, couple Kat and Jesse, head up to a cabin in the Catskills to celebrate their entry into adulthood. It should be a fun, secret trip, but when Claire wakes up in a forest clearing alone and seriously injured, That Weekend becomes the most definitive event of her life thus far. Kat and Jesse are missing, and due to Claire’s head trauma, the last 36 hours are a blank. It’s a horrific dilemma: “All that matters is what happened on that mountain. The only important information is what I can’t remember.”
This dramatic and terrifying turn of events is just the tip of the iceberg in this twisty, fast-paced mystery. Kat and Claire take turns telling the inventive story, which moves to and fro in time. The question of motive is at the heart of the story, which offers readers a rich mine of human behavior to ponder as characters crack under the stress of the weekend’s aftermath. Kat’s wealthy, powerful family tries to take control, the FBI gets involved and a Nancy Grace-esque journalist seems determined to portray Claire as a villain. The resultant media attention coupled with her nagging self-doubt compel Claire to conduct her own investigation in hopes of regaining control over her reputation, emotions and future. As we draw nearer to the truth of that fateful weekend getaway, author Kara Thomas (2018’s The Cheerleaders, et al.) expertly layers plenty of reasons to suspect almost everyone. Whodunit lovers will be delighted.
Lies, betrayals and pulse-pounding moments abound as Claire questions whether she can ever trust or even know anyone. The book’s shocking ending will surely cause readers to look upon innocuous things in their lives (friends, family, weekend jaunts) with sharp eyes.
The Box in the Woods
Readers who heaved sad sighs upon reaching the end of Maureen Johnson’s The Vanishing Stair, the final book in her Truly Devious trilogy, will be thrilled to learn that smart, funny teen sleuth Stevie Bell is back in The Box in the Woods.
It’s summertime, and Stevie is home from Ellingham Academy, the boarding school where she solved a 1930s cold case. That amazing feat made her famous for a time, but now she’s pondering what’s next and making the best of a deli job where the customers feel “entitled to her entire soul as she [gets] them ham.”
She needn’t ponder for long. Tech bro CEO Carson Buchwald makes Stevie an intriguing proposition. He recently purchased Camp Sunny Pines, formerly Camp Wonder Falls, the site of an unsolved murder committed in 1978 that devastated the town of Barlow Corners. Carson intends to make a podcast and documentary about the case, and he wants Stevie to investigate. She can even bring her friends Janelle and Nate, and they’ll all work as counselors while Stevie attempts to solve the brutal crime.
As the story alternates between the present day and the 1970s, Johnson offers funny vignettes of summer-camp life and context for the deaths of the murdered camp counselors—locals whose family and friends still live in town. Readers will root for the irrepressible Stevie, who thrills to tracking down clues. Her romantic relationship is realistic and sweet, and her kindness toward the still-grieving residents of Barlow Corners is touching.
As Stevie fits pieces of the past together, the danger lurking in Barlow Corners emerges and creates irresistible tension, particularly after another murder happens mid-investigation. Can she find the truth before someone else meets an untimely end? The Box in the Woods is a gripping and complex mystery bolstered by its commentary on the popular fascination with true crime—and its empathetic reminder to consider the perspectives of those they leave behind in their wake.