Sometimes, the best genre writers hide in plain sight

In recent weeks I have made a wonderful discovery. An Edgar-award-winning author who writes psychological thrillers with the same depth and punch as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters with the kind of noirish feel that permeates many of my favorite crime novels. A writer who has a keen understanding of how kids react and feel – who goes for the gut and never flinches on true emotions, who (at least so far) creates characters so true they make you cry and feel a little something yourself.

Chances are, many of you haven’t heard of this author. Or if you have, it’s because her name has come up in a completely different context. That’s because Nancy Werlin writes novels geared for young adults, and so if you were – like me – not as inclined towards YA as to adult crime fiction, then you would have passed her by. And that would be a shame, because she’s simply one of the best crime novelists going right now. Period.

I first heard of Werlin when the National Book Award nominations came

out in October and her name was included on the Young People’s

shortlist, but my attention was diverted to M.T. Anderson’s OCTAVIAN

NOTHING, talked up by several people I trust. Obviously, I ended up adoring that book and it was time well spent, but the premise of THE RULES OF SURVIVAL intrigued me. Then I met Werlin (whose weeklong blog of the National Book Awards

got my attention) and we compared notes on crime fiction and YA, and

the so-called “stigma” of genre. So a few days after the awards, I sat

down with my copy of her nominated novel and got reading. And I was

blown away.

Werlin’s prose style is deceptively simple, in that the language is

clear and plain-spoken so that teens of all stripes will understand the

book at varying levels. But the layers of subtext, the ability she had

in conveying how hellish a domestic situation befell her main

characters, the pain Matt feels in trying to protect his younger

sisters Cassie and Emmy, and the hope he has for their potential savior

Murdoch. By the end I wanted to cry for all three, for the torment they

suffered and for the ways in which they coped. THE RULES OF SURVIVAL is

275 pages of gray shades reaching the darkest edges, making for a dicey

tightrope. But Werlin walked it with grace, dignity and authority.

So of course I had to seek out Werlin’s backlist, and just yesterday I finished the book that won her the Edgar Award, THE KILLER’S COUSIN.

Again, this book is unflinching and refuses to wallow in stereotype,

what with a sympathetic narrator who lives with the guilt of

responsibility over his girlfriend’s death, the house of shadows he’s

dropped into, the tightly strung relationship between his uncle and

aunt (and to a lesser extent, his mother and father) and his cousin

Lily. Just eleven, Werlin renders her with a full palate of emotion

from fear to hate to petulance to genuine affection. I thought she

would turn out one way but Werlin completely surprised me. This story

could have had no hope, no redemption. Instead, there was both.

I can’t wait to read the rest of her work. And sure, I suspect Werlin

would do just fine writing novels for grown-ups, but why on earth

should she do so explicitly when she already does so well implicitly? No wonder she’s reaped so many accolades, but there should be even more.