Harriet the Spy, Veronica Mars, Nancy Drew and Anne Dowling all have something in common: they're teens who are more than capable of solving a crime on their own. Yet, while we all admire these girls' bravery, wit and resourcefulness, I'm sure we've also wondered: Why didn't they just go to the police? Kara Taylor, author of Prep School Confidential, which features the aforementioned Anne, tells us how she wrote a convincing teen mystery.
The first time I saw Home Alone, I asked my father why Kevin McAllister (McCauley Caulkin) didn’t simply call the police when he overheard two burglars plotting to invade his house. My dad chewed on this for a second before settling on his form response: “Because then it would have been a very boring movie.”
Years later, I started writing Prep School Confidential, a young adult mystery, and I ran into the "Police are Useless" trope again. We all know the scene: After a crime occurs, the protagonist takes the investigation into her own hands after an incompetent pair of cops doesn’t believe that she’s in danger. Playing into this trope would have gone against every one of my basic instincts — as a white woman raised in a middle-class suburb, I recognize that I’m lucky to never have had any reason to mistrust the police, or authority figures.
I knew that to write a believable teen sleuth, I had to give my heroine enough autonomy to solve a crime on her own, without any of those cringe-worthy “Just call the police!” moments. When Anne's roommate is brutally murdered in the backyard of her elite Massachusetts academy, she quickly learns that The Wheatley School is more concerned with maintaining their ranking as U.S. News and World Report's Best Prep School than aiding the police's investigation. And Anne's lawyer father seems more interested in the fact that Anne was the last person to see Isabella alive than in who REALLY killed her.
While sketching out those moments where Anne holds back crucial information from the police and her parents, I had to ask myself “Would this really happen?” It was important to me that Anne's — and Isabella's — mistrust of authority figures come from a very real place. Anne learns that Isabella was being stalked by a fellow student in the months leading up to her murder, and that the school administration "dealt with it quietly" to avoid a scandal. Recent news stories from Steubenville, Ohio, and Notre Dame demonstrate that there is a pervasive culture of indifference toward sexual assault and harassment, especially from school administrators.
As for the procedural elements of Anne’s investigation, I didn't want to stretch credulity too much — I knew there were limits to what Anne would be able to discover on her own. I knew I had to play into a teen's unique skill set and point-of-view to make her a believable amateur sleuth. Unlike the police, Anne is in a position to crack the case from the inside. The aspects of Anne's personality that she'd previously used to get out of trouble — her charm and smooth-talking — allow her to infiltrate the social hierarchy of Wheatley and access information the police and adults aren’t privy to. Anne doesn’t subvert the police’s investigation so much as she fills in the gaps; for example, when the headmaster blocks the police from obtaining a warrant to search the entire girls’ dormitory, Anne sneaks into the basement while everyone is sleeping and discovers what’s really hidden below campus.
When the Wheatley School literally turns cutthroat, Anne takes matters into her own hands, realizing that every student and faculty member has something to hide. As for me, I’ll probably stick to calling the police when I’m in a bind.
- Kara Taylor
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