“Yesterday we were murder suspects with complicated personal lives, but today we’re just being girls.”
The princess. The jock. The nerd. The criminal. The outsider. What a tangled, profitable web these teen stereotypes have woven!
Director John Hughes staked most of his film career on stories about princesses loving jocks (Sixteen Candles), nerds loving princesses (Weird Science), princesses fought over by jocks and nerds (Pretty in Pink), even outsiders plotting to get a princess . . . and winding up with each other (Some Kind of Wonderful)! But the apotheosis of Hughes’ success occurred when he stuck one of each of these types in a detention room, along with one rotten teacher (the teacher in these stories is always a loser) and created movie magic with The Breakfast Club.
These stock characters have also mined gold in the horror genre, primarily for all the social outcasts who flock to these thrillers. They do so because the jock and the princess, winners both in the high school success game, always die in horror movies. Always! The nerd may or may not die but usually in some fashion overcomes his social awkwardness long enough to become a hero. Finally, the outsider tends to win in the end, their heroic status all the more extraordinary in film history because they are almost always female and a virgin. This concept reached its apex in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, which raised the quartet literally to mythic status. True, nobody survived in the end, but that’s because nobody survived in the end. In fact, the outsider (female) and the nerd brought about the end of days itself and survived long enough to raise the finger against a world system that had always been unfairly loaded against them.
Naturally these characters are fodder for most of the classics of Young Adult fiction, which today includes some of the best stories being published in any market. Modern YA likes to subvert the stereotype. So while adult romance fiction is filled with women yearning to become princesses, YA princesses (who may or may not be actual princesses) have far more serious goals to consider beyond finding Prince Charming, like ruling wisely, improving the world around them, and making people see beyond the real or status-given “crown” they wear. Jocks are widely misunderstood: they either fight the stereotypes around them or embrace the stereotype and show that all is good.
Ultimately, though, YA is all about the nerd and the outsider because those who battle mightily for recognition and acceptance are always going to be the stuff of a better story. From Holden Caulfield to Harry Potter, Ponyboy to Katniss Everdeen, we root for the underdog to find his or her way out of the agonies of adolescence.
YA is also where a lot of old genres go to die . . . except, if they’re lucky, these story tropes are reinvigorated by embracing young characters (and young audiences) and by imbuing genre conventions with a healthy dose of teenage realism. Most of the notice goes to the fantasies, where dystopian heroines save the world (but at a terrible cost), or where an awkward girl gets to choose between a hunky werewolf or immortal love with a vampire. (Bad news, folks: she chooses the vampire!)
Just before Christmas, in a post on JJ’s site, The Invisible Event, a commenter remarked that GAD tropes are actually alive and well in the cozy market. I would venture to say that they have also found a home on the YA shelves. Writers like R.L. Stine and Lois Duncan forged their careers on inflicting terrible things on young people, and this often involved a group of guilt-ridden teens with a murderer in their midst. Like the worst of GAD fiction, these high school horrors were extremely formulaic, calling to mind the tales of Mary Roberts Rinehart or any author who focused their mysteries on the romantic pursuits of the heroine. Some novels, like Gretchen McNeil’s Ten, aimed higher (in this case, Christie’s And Then There Were None) but sadly batted zero. But a number of excellent mysteries also manifested, like M.E. Kerr’s Fell series or Pete Hautman’s fabulous mash-up of murder and time travel, Mr. Was.
Which brings us today’s book, One of Us Is Lying, by Karen M. McManus, which has been teasing me from bookshelves and magazine ads for weeks now. A New York Times bestseller, no less, the novel takes us back to The Breakfast Club, as a princess, a jock, a nerd (this one female) and an outsider (this one male) are gathered in another awful teacher’s classroom for detention. But rather than get stoned and open up about their feelings, this quartet become suspects in the poisoning of a fifth student – a gossip king who knows everyone’s dirty secrets and, worst of all, publishes them daily!
It turns out – sadly – that the way this book is advertised is of far more interest than the book itself. Given the title, the cover art, the blurb on the jacket, readers are being lured to this novel by the very tactics once used to tangle GAD readers in an author’s web. Four blank faces rock the cover, the title One of Us Is Lying emblazoned atop the image. (The title turns out to be dishonest for two reasons: first, all of them are lying, and second, none of that matters.)
Turn to the inside cover, where the blurb begins: “PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND YOU MIGHT SOLVE THIS.” (This turns out to be the second series of lies to the reader – solving this mystery is not possible, and it’s not really the point.) The blurb itself reinforces our expectation that we will be handed a mystery in the classic style. It gives a brief description of the five students who enter Mr. Asher’s class to serve detention (“THE BRAIN! THE BEAUTY! THE CRIMINAL! THE ATHLETE! THE OUTCAST!”) and then goes on:
“Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention, Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates, which makes all four of them suspects in his murder. Or are they just the perfect patsies for a killer who’s still on the loose?”
Don’t get me wrong: Simon does die an ugly death, and the police do investigate. The story is narrated in rotating fashion by the four suspects, and each of them comes in for his or her share of suspicion. Several twists are dropped along the way, a couple of them fairly clever, and in the end the truth is revealed. So on the surface, you’re holding a whodunit in your hands.
And look, I get it: first and foremost it’s a YA novel. As a result, romance is going to play a much larger part here than was allowed (or thought wise) by GAD authors. Here’s Bronwyn Rojas, “the Brain,” encountering Nate Macauley, “the Criminal,” in the school hall days after Simon’s death:
“His dark hair is more disheveled than ever, and I’m pretty sure he’s wearing the same T-shirt as yesterday. Somehow, though, it works on him. A little too well. Everything from his tall, rangy build to his angular cheekbones and wide-set, dark-fringed eyes is making me lose my train of thought.”
This reminded me of Gretchen McNeil’s Ten, when the heroine, surrounded by death, can’t stop thinking about the hunky football player, her ex-boyfriend, and whether or not her fear and panic is making her seem unattractive to him. Good grief, people, there’s a serial killer out there; stop fixing your make-up!
No matter. This is a book about the effects of this horrific incident on high schoolers, who it wreaks havoc with their private lives, tears at their relationships with family and friends . . . and eventually sets the survivors on the path to good emotional/romantic health. Along the way, it teaches you lessons, as these books tend to do. A lot of lessons, it turns out, such as:
- Online bullying is bad
- Cheating on your boyfriend is bad
- Rejecting an unpopular kid is really bad
- No matter how you look, everyone is beautiful on the inside. (Highlights can help.)
- Alcoholism is bad.
- Sexuality comes in a rainbow spectrum, and it’s all good.
- Adults are problematic: one or two of them can be helpful and cool, but mostly they just get in the way.
- Your brother or your sister is your best friend.
- Journalists are animals.
- Cliché – and stereotype-ridden teen novels are a drag.
I don’t think this last lesson was intentional, but the people who surround our four main characters – the stupid cops, the mean girls, the ineffectual moms and dads – are pretty by the book. The four leads are likable, though, and even if you start to suspect – as I did early on – that Simon’s death was a ruse to get me hooked on whether Bronwyn, Addie, Nate, and Cooper would find happiness and, yes, resist arrest, I did care about these kids. Nate, especially, is well portrayed: he owns his criminal behavior from start to finish and comes off as the most sympathetic of the lot.
Now, listen: I have read plenty of grown-up mysteries where the characters come off as stick figures, or matters start to sag in the middle under the heavy weight of suspect interviews, or too many interludes mar the ongoing suspense of the investigation. Yet I have plodded on in most of those cases because I want to find out the truth! And I’m sure we can all think of some titles where all is redeemed at the end by a clever solution.
I’m not even going to hint at the solution here, but I have to say that it left me more than unsatisfied. It all comes down to a climactic scene where two people face each other and the big explanation occurs. In the course of what is revealed, you begin to realize that certain characters behaved so inconsistently that the whole construct falls apart. I’m aware that teenagers can be crazily inconsistent, but again, we’re talking about being lured by GAD tropes, which demand a logical approach to the sequence of events and the behavior of the characters, or else the whole damn thing falls apart! If this doesn’t unravel entirely, at the very least it left me feeling extremely grouchy.
So maybe the readers of cozies or of novels like this one will argue with you that GAD is not dead. Well, it may not be dead, but it sure is languishing . . .