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Discussion: YA Mystery/Thriller vs Adult Mystery/Thriller

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

What is the difference and which is best for you? Plus recommendations for both YA and adult mystery/thrillers. To start, let's look at the difference between a YA book and an adult book.

What is a Young Adult Book?

Classifying a book as young adult is a publishers' term for a book targeted at an audience between the ages of 13 and 18. This means a number of things to the content of the book, ranging from the characters to the writing to the language of the book. YA is also a fairly new genre which means even authors and publishers are still fully figuring out what it is as well. Below is a list of some identifying characteristics of a YA book to give you a general idea. However, this list is not a master list and some books may not fully fit these characteristics.

  • Teen characters

  • Nothing too explicit

  • Minimal swearing

  • Generally shorter and less dense

  • Deals with topics relatable for teens

What is an Adult Book?

A adult book is a book that does not fit into the criteria for a young adult book. This means there is little to no limit to the content in the book. Below is a list of characteristics for adult books.

  • Adult characters

  • Explicit and graphic scenes

  • Little limit on swearing

  • A different pacing

  • Have topics relatable for adults

Why Read YA?

As an adult, it may be a puzzle why you should read YA. However, YA books are just as good as adult books. They are simply written to fit a different age audience. They still deal with relevant topics and have the same amount of quality as any other book. Many adults read YA because they didn't have it when they were teenagers, since the genre didn't exist then. Teens and adults can relate to the characters either right then or when they were younger. For some people, the YA section is a very special place because it is such a unique group of books, made for such a specific audience. Unlike the adult section, which can be big and intimidating, the YA section is a much smaller realm, making it much easier to find the right book. While I am biased toward YA, I feel like many people underestimate or misjudge what YA really is, because they think it's just books about angsty teenagers. A YA book is an easy way into the book world because they are light to read, but they also have a lot of power in their words. In the future I can curate a list of very well written and well loved YA books that can be enjoyed by anyone, but now let's get into the mystery/thriller genre.

Mystery vs Thriller

Very briefly, the difference is that a mystery book is focused around something that has happened and someone is trying to figure out what happened. In a thriller, the events like murders, for example, are continuing to happen and the point of these books is to thrill the reader. These genres are often categorized together, because books sometimes have a mystery and an unsolved event that is played out in the book.

YA Mystery/Thriller

In the YA genre, there are many more mysteries than thrillers. It is very difficult to find a truly thrilling YA thriller (in my opinion); instead, you will find a variety of mysteries. This is simply because the limits the genre puts on these books make them less intense. However, this does not mean thrills don't exist and the amount of thrill for any book is completely subjective to the reader. YA mysteries, over the years, have gotten more layered and included more twists and turns. I have found many that were very enjoyable to read, but also many that haven't been very memorable. For me, the ones I have most enjoyed stemmed from the initial premise of the book rather than the mystery being solved. For example, one of my all time favorites, Stalking Jack the Ripper, is a favorite because of the time period, writing, characters, and forensic aspects of the book. This book wouldn't be the first book I would go to for an amazing mystery, but due to the other features I really like it.

YA covers are usually illustrated and show an object or something related to the plot of the book. Some also have light color schemes. The content of YA mystery/thriller books has very little graphic description and few scare factors. Usually there is one main storyline it follows. The point of the YA mystery/thrillers are more so to entertain the reader with a mystery rather than to fully hook them into the story. YA authors don't normally have very large backlists. The books are about 400 pages or less. These books usually end well and with full closure. If not, the main mystery is solved and there may be a small subplot unsolved but for the most part the end is the end.

Adult Mystery/Thriller

Adult mystery/thrillers cover the gamut of topics and thrill amounts. There are two types of mystery/thrillers in the adult genre. One are the books that are by authors with very large back lists and that are part of a very long series that can be read in or out of order. They also normally follow the same main character(s). Books in this category include Louise Penny, Tom Clancy, and Nevada Barr's books. Large series following one main character can sometimes (but not always) be formulaic and the backlist can be overwhelming. The second type are the books from authors of stand alone books with smaller back lists. Though some of these authors have accumulated much larger backlists over the years, the books normally don't connect with each other. These authors include Lisa Jewel, Ruth Ware, and Riley Sager. Authors with shorter back lists and with stories that don't connect can be less overwhelming since the books are fully stand alone. The point of bringing this up is to explain that adult books have a wider scope of types of mystery/thrillers and therefore readers can find more books appealing to them.

The covers of adult books almost always have dark colors with real images of people or objects. Regarding the content of adult mystery/thrillers, the story is often very complicated, with many twists and turns. There are normally many different storylines that will be told separately and then connect near the end, therefore requiring the reader to be able to keep everything straight. The extent of the graphic descriptions has no limit, meaning some of these books can get pretty gruesome. They also deal with adult topics such as child disappearance, family issues, kidnapping, and more. It is more important to look into trigger/content warnings when going into an adult book, rather than YA, because of the few limits on the content. Adult mystery/thrillers don't always end as one would think or with full closure, but some do.

To Break It Down

YA Mystery/Thriller

They follow all the guidelines of the YA genre and

  • More mystery, less thriller

  • Lighter topics

  • Less graphic

  • Shorter/less dense

  • One main storyline

  • Full closure

  • Teen characters and problems

  • Illustrated covers with light color schemes

Adult Mystery/Thriller

They follow all the guidelines of the adult genre and

  • Variety of stories and series

  • Can be graphic

  • Deal with adult issues/topics

  • Can be an open ending

  • Complex story lines

  • Dark covers with real images

Which is Best for You?

It all comes down to preference and your personal tolerance for thrills. YA books are more catered to a YA audience but can be enjoyed by adults too. The mystery is less complicated, intense, or scary. Adult books have a wide range of topics so it is easy to find something you are interested in. If you don't like scary or thrilling stuff, there are books that are called cozy mysteries that are exactly as they sound: cozy.

I recommend reading a few books from both YA and adult genres, using online lists and resources to find ones that sound most interesting to you. Then you will be able to tell which you prefer. For me, I prefer adult mystery/thrillers since they are more complex and intense, however I do read a YA mystery here and there due to their ease of reading.



Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

Audrey Rose is learning all about forensics in the Victorian era when suddenly she has to put her knowledge to use when someone begins gruesomely murdering women.

Come Find Me by Megan Miranda

Kennedy Jones and Nolan Chandler's lives start to connect as Kennedy finds mysterious signals coming from his radio telescope. Is something coming for them? Or is it already here?

The Kingdom by Jess Rothemberg

Told in mixed media, the book is about Ana, a fantasist from The Kingdom, who is accused of murdering Owen, a staff member of the facility.


The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Rowan is accused of murdering a child she was babysitting for in a luxury smart home that may have something hidden behind its walls.

A Good Marriage by Kimberly McCreight

A legal thriller following Amanda leading up to her death and Lizzie, who is trying to defend Amanda's husband, who is the primary suspect in his wife's murder.

A Stranger Inside the House by Shari Lapena

One day Karen Krupp abruptly left home and drove her car recklessly until she inevitably crashed in the bad part of town. While Karen is in the hospital and unable to remember why she did it, her husband and the police try to piece together a reason, all while a mysterious stranger is visiting their house.

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