Diana Urban is the author of several YA thrillers, including All Your Twisted Secrets and the upcoming Paris catacombs survival story, Under the Surface (Putnam, Aug. 13). In this essay, Urban reflects on why young readers are so enthralled by murder-centric stories, making mysteries and thrillers such hot genres in YA publishing today.

Sometimes at publishing events when I share the pitch for my debut (six teens locked in a room must pick one of them to kill or they’ll all die) or for my upcoming novel (four teens lost in the Paris catacombs must outrun masked sadists for days), I get weird looks.

One time, someone literally asked me if I was okay.

Regardless of my personal well-being, here’s the thing: teens eat this stuff up.

And they have been for a while. As a teen in the early ’00s, I subsisted on R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books, each chock full of gore and murder and harrowing twists. These days, there seem to be more YA thrillers and murder mysteries getting published than ever before, which might make you wonder: why do teens love morbid, stabby stories so much? Let’s dig into it.

They Feel Like Immersive Puzzles

There’s something so enticing about a story that feels like a puzzle you can solve yourself. Much like wildly popular RPG video games such as Baldur’s Gate 3, where players immerse themselves in complex quests, murder mysteries give readers the chance to piece together clues alongside the protagonist. They’re not just reading, they’re actively participating in the story in a way; when they crack the case, there’s a satisfying sense of accomplishment... or when a plot twist detonates their theory, it’s a delightful surprise.

This demand for engaging stories can explain the surge of YA narratives featuring games or high-stakes (often deadly!) competitions, like Their Vicious Games by Joelle Wellington, as well as Agatha Christie-inspired novels that blend classic whodunit elements with fresh, modern settings, like my own Lying in the Deep, a loose retelling of Death on the Nile set on a Semester-at-Sea-inspired cruise ship.

They Hold Shorter Attention Spans

Social media and digital multitasking may impact our ability to focus. According to Dr. Gloria Mark in her book Attention Span, she tracked people’s attention spans over decades of research and found that since 2004, the average attention on a screen decreased from 2.5 minutes to 47 seconds. Studies have even shown that media multitasking can adversely impact preteens’ academic performance. And anecdotally, we can all relate to feeling our attention being yanked in a hundred directions at once.

But the stabbiest YA books can help slice through that brain clutter. The need to find out how a mystery ends is a powerful motivator to keep reading, and thriller genre conventions—short chapters, punchy prose, cliffhanger chapter endings, and relentless pacing—keep readers hooked and turning pages. Teens often credit these books with getting them out of reading slumps and report devouring them in a single sitting.

They Examine Harrowing Experiences in a Safe Setting

Murder mysteries provide a safe space for readers to explore intense, often relatable experiences. Whether it involves the death of a friend, being falsely accused of a crime, or facing bullying at school, teens can read about characters their age navigating serious issues and see how they cope with the emotional and practical fallout of such events.

For instance, in Looking for Smoke by K.A. Cobell, the protagonists are the last people to see the murder victim alive at a Blackfeet giveaway and must find the killer while grappling with their own grief and trauma in order to clear their names. And Perfect Little Monsters by Cindy R.X. He provides an examination of bullying in high school after someone kills the queen bee. Books like these give readers a way to process heavy or scary themes — or even satiate a desire for revenge.

They Explore the Dark Side of Humanity

There’s a reason true-crime podcasts and TV shows are so popular—they delve into the darker aspects of human nature that morbidly fascinate us and expose rationales for why people do such horrible, murderous things.

YA mysteries and thrillers often tap into this same curiosity, featuring vengeful villains and sociopathic characters as compelling as they are horrifying. Books like Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder and Courtney Summers’s Sadie even feature protagonists who are budding true-crime podcasters eager to dig deep into the villains’ motivations. While teens don’t always know why someone has wronged them or acted cruelly toward them—at school, at home, or online—these YA books often provide clarity and gratifying resolutions that reality can lack.

They’re Fantastic Escapism

At the end of the day, YA thrillers and mysteries offer teens a way to experience harrowing adventures they’d never want to experience for real. With my two latest thrillers, I aimed to transport readers to exciting locales that make for unique backdrops to the story’s mystery. In Lying in the Deep, Jade is trapped on a cruise ship with a killer on board. In Under the Surface, Ruby and her friends are lost in the eerie and claustrophobic catacombs of Paris while mysterious masked men chase them.

As someone who loves crafting dark, twisty stories for teens, I hope they love this chance to vicariously explore places that are fascinating and terrifying—and (hopefully) a stark contrast to their everyday life—while safely curled up on their couch.

It’s no plot twist that we’ve seen a rise in books blending these elements young readers gobble up. But I’m excited publishers are eager to deliver more of what teens love, and I can’t wait to see what fresh, innovative takes my fellow authors come up with next.