The teen sleuth has a long history in children’s and young adult literature. During the twentieth century, popular children’s fiction became an increasingly profitable market. Large companies like the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its publishing partner Grosset and Dunlap produced masses of series fiction, finding especially great success with adventure and mystery series for children and teens. Though these titles were first published in the 1930s and ’40s, many of the characters remain well-known cultural figures. For example, Nancy Drew continues to appear in novels, video games, and even a feature film as recently as 2007. Kid and teen detectives from Encyclopedia Brown and the Red Blazer Girls to the Hardy Boys and Gallagher Girls continue to fly off the shelves in libraries and bookstores.
In middle school, I devoured every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on before moving on to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes. But I’ve always been looking for a new smart & savvy teen sleuth–and when Veronica Mars premiered during my final years of high school, I knew I’d found my girl. The character and the show appealed to me then as a young adult and a mystery reader–and it continues to appeal to me now, as a fan of the genre and young adult literature as a whole. Veronica Mars is simply a terrific example of storytelling for and about young adults–in addition to being a great mystery series.
The series can trace a connection to young adult literature back to its initial creation. Before he brought the teen sleuth back into popular culture, Rob Thomas wrote and published a young adult novel, Rats Saw God, a 1997 Best Books for Young Adults selection, recently re-released in a new edition. In an interview with The Austin Chronicle, Thomas explains that his creation of Rats Saw God–and later Veronica Mars–drew on his experiences during his first post-college job as a high school journalism teacher. So what qualities did Thomas’ writing include that made the show work so well in the world of young adult media?
Veronica Mars has frequently been compared to another teen show with a complex female protagonist and devoted fan base: Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The comparison is apt for a variety of reasons but I’d like to highlight one in particular: both Veronica and Buffy use the format, style, and characteristics of genre fiction to tell universal coming of age stories.
Veronica Mars explores the world of young adulthood through a noir lens–and it works well, providing both a unique hook as well as an effective way of tackling common topics from a fresh angle. Growing up requires most teenagers to be detectives of a sort, seeking the answers to the extensional questions of identity; for Veronica, the investigation is just a bit more concrete. And what setting could be more suited to a genre associated with high drama, cynical narrators, archetypal characters and the dark side of human nature than high school? Throughout its three seasons, Veronica Mars tackles situations common to young adult literature–with a noir twist. The series purposefully structures mysteries and connects character-driven plots around established events in American adolescence, including school dances, scholarship contests, field trips, the college search process, final exams, and high school graduation. Veronica’s cases include topics ranging from student election fraud and theft to blackmail and sexual harassment and assault. Additionally, from its first episode, the series does not back away from explicitly exploring privilege and power, especially in relationship to class, race, and gender.
But while Veronica Mars spins some fairly satisfying mysteries, in both episodic & season-long arcs, the show’s true strength comes from its characters, starting with its eponymous heroine. Like many protagonists in both young adult fiction and noir films, Veronica is an outcast, alienated by painful past events including her best friend’s murder, her mother’s consequent abandonment and her own sexual assault. She introduces herself in the pilot episode with a clever and cynical voice over reminiscent of narration styles common to both noir films and young adult fiction. Veronica is skeptical, angry, ambitious, loyal, and witty. She’s smart, capable, and loving but also distrustful, stubborn, and sometime cruel. She expects people to let her down and prefers revenge over reconciliation.
Recently there’s been a great discussion about “likability” and gender in young adult fiction on Twitter, Tumblr. and beyond; check out posts from librarian and former Hub blogger Kelly Jensen at both Stacked and Book Riot, librarian Jenny Arch, librarian Liz Burns, and author Claire Legrand to start exploring the conversation. I feel that it’s a great piece of serendipity that this discussion has emerged again just in time for the long awaited premiere of the Veronica Mars film this week. Veronica stands out as a favorite character for me precisely because she is not a conventionally ‘likable’ female character. She is complicated, fierce, and intelligent–but she’s not nice and her actions & choices are not always understandable or comfortable, even to a sympathetic audience. In other words, she is a very complex, human character– as well as a talented sleuth. She also fits right into the morally foggy world of Neptune, CA, where good people often do bad things, everyone is broken, and there are no ideal heroes– including our intrepid heroine.
I could go on and on, analyzing the shifts in the series from season to season, exploring the fascinating supporting characters, or the show’s unique ability to tap into its devoted fandom. But instead I’ll simply leave you with the recommendation to check out the trailer for Veronica Mars feature film debut and hope that you too will be persuaded to investigate her not so mysterious appeal for yourself.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Flowers in the Sky by Lynn Joseph