While teen fiction is new to this blog and hasn’t made up much of my reading in the past three or four years, I should say that hasn’t always been the case. Back when I started book blogging about six or seven years ago I shared a book blog and podcast with my wife where we pretty much exclusively talked and wrote about teen fiction.
The subject of today’s post, You Owe Me A Murder, is an example of a type of teen fiction that reimagines or is inspired by works classic literature. Some of these works will do little more than simply transpose the events of a novel into a new setting while others use this approach to discover and develop new themes and ideas, often ending up in quite different places or finding new relevance and connections in a classic story for younger readers.
I have written before about how much I enjoy Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train both in its original form and in the film adaptation so when I came across this new teen novel I couldn’t resist picking up a copy. I was curious to see what elements of the story Cook would retain and how she would rework it to suit today’s younger readers.
The book begins with seventeen year old Kim who is with a small party of students from school who are about to take a trip to London. We learn that back when she signed up for the trip she was excited to spend time with her boyfriend Connor but that since then they have broken up and he is now dating one of her friends. In short, she is dreading the trip, expecting to be uncomfortable and miserable for the next few weeks.
As she waits for her flight to be ready she meets Nicki, a slightly older British girl. The two girls connect and share their frustrations about their lives and situations over a stolen bottle of vodka. Nicki encourages her to talk about her feelings about Connor, inspiring her to write a list of reasons Connor has to die, and shares some of her own complaints about her alcoholic mother. By the time she emerges off the flight she is feeling brighter and more optimistic (albeit with a little bit of a hangover) and is ready for the possibility of a new romance when one comes up. But then Connor falls in front of a train and Kim begins to worry that maybe her new friend is responsible.
And then she receives an anonymous note telling her “You’re welcome”…
The setup is clearly right out of Highsmith though with some updates to account for shifts in the way we travel and to reflect the protagonist’s (younger) age and changing societal norms. Guy was angry at his wife because he was trapped in a marriage preventing him from moving on but Kim’s frustrations at feeling humiliated by her ex, compounded by this being a first boyfriend are relatable. Later in the book we learn further details both of their relationship and how they broke up that add complexity to this aspect of the story which is welcome, helping us understand exactly why Kim is so shaken by the ending of this relationship.
The trip to London is also used quite well because of what it represents for Kim. She is travelling to a place in which she has no support network to fall back on, even if we learn quite early on how inadequate her parents are in this regard, helping us to understand how she will find herself in such a precarious position by the midpoint of the book. It also offers her opportunities however, even if she does not see them at first, to exert some independence and control over her life.
One of the most interesting changes Cook makes to the setup is to have Nicki want her own mother dead rather than a stepfather. Bruno in Highsmith’s original could argue that he was protecting his mother (although I would suggest that he simply doesn’t want to share his mother’s affections or the imposition of control over his drinking and lifestyle) but Nicki is pushing for the elimination of a barrier to her independence. Because she is asking for the elimination of her own kin, the request seems all the more shocking and wrong but it also creates an interesting parallel between Kim and Nicki – the former may be appalled by the idea of killing anyone but she of all people can relate to the idea of feeling that your life is being ruined by a parent (hers is a mommy blogger who has put her whole life up for public consumption on the internet).
On the whole I consider the adjustments the author makes to the initial premise to be successful. She translates the setting and concept well, adjusting it to suit these younger protagonists and to draw out themes of independence and privacy in an internet age that fit comfortably alongside the core plot and feel relevant to today’s generation of teens. Arguably the changes she makes do make Kim blameless in a way that it would be hard to say Guy was in the original story but I think that is fine, particularly given that she blames herself anyway and that the author intends to develop the story in a different direction in the final third.
I have no intentions of spoiling what Cook does differently but I will say that I think the book builds to a strong and exciting conclusion that feels in tune with the themes developed throughout the novel. Cook does a fine job of developing the sense of a teen who feels trapped in a situation that she cannot control. There are a few moments that I think will surprise readers, particularly those who have no experience of the original work or movie. The ending is a little tidy for my tastes but I think it is effective and will satisfy most readers and I loved that there is a surprise mystery element here that is properly clued throughout the novel.
While I enjoyed the work on the whole, there were a few elements that I think missed the mark for me. The biggest issue for me was that there are a few uses of British slang that didn’t quite sound natural. While it has been a few years since I lived in England, a few expressions didn’t feel properly applied or seemed a little dated (I grew up in the eighties and I don’t recall anyone under the age of 30 referring to being ‘on the dole’ – I can’t imagine that this expression has come back). This won’t bother many readers, particularly those enchanted with all things British, but it sometimes made Nicki read a little false to me (though there are plenty of examples of slang used perfectly!).
My other issue with the book is that Nicki, as an antagonist, feels a little flat. Some of this is the result of a direct comparison with Bruno but I think there is also an issue that she exists to manipulate the main character rather than feeling like a fully-fledged character in her own right. While Kim expands as a character the more time we spend with her, Nicki becomes less complex and interesting as we learn more. This probably fits the tone of the book but the more in control Nicki seems, the less interesting and complex she becomes.
In spite of these complaints, I do think this is one of the more successful reimaginings of a classic novel for teen readers that I have encountered. It does a solid job of presenting its themes and ideas for its audience and rather than simply updating the setting or language it does feel like it is its own work that develops in its own way, albeit from a familiar starting point.