My Mystery/Thriller Books

Here are my various mystery novels, all for young adults, including a book adapted as a feature film, an Edgar Award nominee, and a mind-bender with a twist ending (that’s also being adapted for film). Click on a title or jacket below to jump down to detailed information about each book, including the real story behind its publication. Or simply scroll down to read the story of all these books.


Project Pay Day by Brent Hartinger.jpg

"Our parents just said we had to get summer jobs. They didn't say what summer jobs!"

Dave and his two best friends, Hannah and Curtis, are looking forward to a summer of complete freedom, but their parents have another idea: they insist that the three teenagers get summer jobs.

But the friends come up with a plan: Why not invent fake jobs to get their parents off their backs? The trouble is, their parents are going to want to see them bringing in real money. And that means finding a way to get-rich-quick, but without breaking the law, and without doing any actual work.

The summer passes and Dave, Curtis, and Hannah try a long list of schemes: trying to catch bank robbers to win the reward; scientifically calculating the “correct” number of jelly beans in a contest jar; finding and exploring a network of underground smugglers' tunnels; and even diving for sunken treasure.

But “Project Pay Day” never quite goes according to plan, and they don’t make the money they need.

Soon summer is almost over, and they have no choice but to solve a big local mystery — or face the consequences of their actions, which includes their parents breaking up the trio for good!

(This book was previously published under the title Project Sweet Life.)


“An ingenious plot with a little Tom Sawyer, a little Homer Price, and a lotta laughs! That’s what I call ‘sweet!’”
– Michael Cart, Booklist

“A hilarious story filled with mishaps, close calls, and outrageous adventures.”
– School Library Journal

“The friendship, lightly and expertly depicted, drives the book, while their smartly plotted moneymaking schemes are creative, highjinks-filled, and hilariously almost effective.”
– Horn Book Review

“Lovable, flawed, and genuinely charming, Hartinger’s characters drive the story …[It’s'] funny, realistic yet whimsical story delivered up with loving care.”





I’ve long thought there’s a massively underserved market in kidlit, with almost no books aimed specifically at kids twelve to 15 — kids too old for middle grade but not quite ready for young adult, which is mostly written for twenty and thirtysomething women now anyway. Meanwhile, my own favorite books as a kid were “episodic” ones like The Great Brain and The Mad Scientists Club, where each chapter tells an individual adventure, even as the book also tells an overall story.

My memory of being 15 years old is in sharp contrast to the way teens are almost always portrayed in books and movies, how they’re always so eager to grow up and become “adults.” I wasn’t eager to grow up. I knew exactly how great I had it at that age — almost total independence but none of the real responsibilities of adulthood — and I wanted to appreciate every last second.

I think my feelings also had to do with my subconsciously realizing I was gay but not being ready to deal with it. I was tickled when Stranger Things dealt with this exact same theme ten years later — how Will’s friends start to discover girls but as a gay kid, he just wanted to keep playing Dungeons & Dragons with his buddies. I think this feeling was extremely common among LGBTQ folks of my generation, but Stranger Things and my book are the only two places I’ve ever seen it dramatized.

Anyway, this book was my attempt to once again write the book that I thought wasn’t being written and hopefully fill a hole in the market. I gave it a high concept: what if three 15-year-olds, told by their parents that they must get summer jobs, invent fake summer jobs — and then embark on a series of get-rich-quick schemes to make the money they should be making so they can enjoy one last summer of total freedom?

But this is yet another book of mine that was orphaned — my editor was fired seven months before publication. Even worse, no one told me, and HarperCollins didn’t even bother assigning me a new editor. The publisher truly could not have cared less about this book.

Even so, it still got some of the best reviews of my career, sold more than anyone expected, and eventually became a feature film, which I wrote, and was briefly developed as a TV series. You can read my thoughts about the movie here.

This is a self-published reprint edition too, and I confess, I was disappointed it made zero impact upon its re-release in 2021. Then again, the world has changed a lot since 2008 — and even more since I was a teenager back in the 80s. Summer jobs are much less of a thing now, and kids seem to leave their houses and apartments a lot less now too.

Again, I don’t care. I love this book with the passion of a thousand suns. Most artistic projects ultimately turn out worse than how you imagine they’ll be when you start them, but this one turned out better. It’s my third favorite thing I’ve ever written (after Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams and The Otto Digmore Difference).


Deep in the heart of the forest, four friends gather for a weekend of fun.

Truth #1: Rob is thrilled about the weekend trip. It’s the perfect time for him to break out of his shell…to be the person he really, really wants to be.

Truth #2: Liam, Rob’s boyfriend, is nothing short of perfect. He’s everything Rob could have wanted. They’re perfect together. Perfect.

Truth #3: Mia has been Liam’s best friend for years…long before Rob came along. They get each other in a way Rob could never, will never, understand.

Truth #4: Galen, Mia’s boyfriend, is sweet, handsome, and incredibly charming. He’s the definition of a Golden Boy…even with the secrets up his sleeve.

One of these truths is a lie…and not everyone will live to find out which one it is.

Listen to me discuss this book

  • An Edgar Award Nominee, 2017

  • YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, 2017

  • An Editor’s Pick for August 2016

  • A Barnes & Noble Most Anticipated Book for August 2016


“I was left in a daze from how perfectly complex and unpredictable the story truly was. You literally won’t see any of it coming. And, even better, there are no loose ends or plot holes; everything made sense in the end! 5/5 [or] 6/5, [which is] mathematically impossible.”

“The story is suspenseful, with excellent pacing, self-aware humor, and a twist that Hartinger pulls off as well as the best slasher films.”
– Kirkus Reviews

“In a taut story whose atmosphere is reminiscent of Stephen King, Hartinger presents readers with a psychological thriller and suspenseful mystery.”
– VOYA [Starred Review]

“A gripping, intense mystery … perfect for reluctant readers.”
– School Library Journal

“Excellent … leaves you guessing to the very end … You’ll never see the ending coming. It’ll blow your mind.”
– Forever Young Adult





I said earlier than in 2003, my novel Geography Club was one of the first in a huge wave of LGBTQ YA novels. Problem is, most of those novels have been angsty, earnest literary fiction or breezy, crowd-pleasing romcoms.

So I wrote a very dark, very edgy, very weird puzzle box thriller.

No, seriously, the main characters have gay sex next to a dead body. How the hell did this thing get published?

But thrillers were suddenly hot, and this one quickly sold to Simon & Schuster.

Alas, I was orphaned again — the ninth time in my career my editor has left before the release of a book of mine. Simon & Schuster also made a very weird choice in the print editions to do large text, which I think makes people think the book is for younger readers, which it very definitely is not.

In the end, this book split readers, making some people very angry — it has a very low average rating on Goodreads. I mean, it’s dark and disturbing, right? And I’ve also since discovered that plot-heavy thrillers with twist endings often make people ultra-critical. I know I myself can be very nit-picky with books like these.

But sometimes I worry that all most readers want is frothy romcoms or earnest, angsty fiction, and that depresses me a little, because I want to write more than just that.

Anyway, with Three Truths and a Lie, I think I pulled off something pretty daring and special. Every author thinks their book didn’t get the attention it deserved — probably even Harper Lee. But I frequently hear from readers, “You got screwed! That book didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved!” And, well, I secretly agree with them.

Even so, this one quickly earned out its advance, and I was nominated for an Edgar Award, which is the big award for mysteries. I wouldn’t mind at least one more huge hit in my career (like my first book Geography Club), but this could have done a lot worse.


Two boys, both at a crossroads...

Harlan and Manny are both seventeen years old, but they couldn’t be more different. Harlan is an athlete with a beautiful girlfriend, the son of a powerful U.S. Senator, and possibly the most popular kid in his high school. Meanwhile, Manny is a quirky theater geek, the son of a struggling single father, and one of the school’s least popular kids. And yet, Harlan and Manny both share the same sense of foreboding, a feeling that something is not right in each of their lives.

They have something else in common as well, even if they don’t know it. Fourteen years ago, when they were both three years old, a tragedy occurred — an accident that would link the two boys together forever, even as it ultimately drove them apart. It’s an event that both of them barely remember, but it still haunts them in the form of Harlan’s premonitions and Manny’s nightmares. Somehow both boys know that nothing will ever be right until they can each unravel the secret of the terrifying instant that lies at the center of both their lives.

  • Optioned for Development as a Feature Film

  • A #1 Amazon Bestseller

  • Winner of the Scandiuzzi Children's Book Award


“An astonishing surprise ending, unlikely to be anticipated but fairly clued in for the reader detective. The immensely talented author is a master of structure.” (Highest Rating)
– Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

“Parallels and double meanings abound in this tricky, but satisfying, double narrative. It’s all about fate and connections for the grand and the humble.”
– Kirkus Reviews

“This is a taut, skillfully woven psychological thriller with an ending they’ll never see coming; fans of coming of age stories and clever plots will be absorbed by this haunting parable.”
– The Bulletin

“There’s a surprise twist at the end: talk about a fork in the road!…[A] taut and clever thriller.”
– Kliatt

“A brilliant twist near the end makes their worlds collide in a moment of epiphany. Grand & Humble is a wonderful story told with a sure and able hand.”
– Crime Spree Magazine





I still think this is one of the best story “ideas” I’ve ever had. Did I pull it off? It got some great reviews, especially with mystery outlets, but it also got some sour ones, and like Three Truths and a Lie, it received a very mixed reader reaction, with low average ratings on Goodreads and Amazon. Then again, I now know twisty thrillers and surprise endings often split readers.

Sales weren’t a disaster, and Grand & Humble won the state book award in my home state of Washington. The judges told me, “It was no contest! We all loved your book!” and some of the competition were very high-profile (one of which became a movie; I’d rather have landed the movie deal). But the novel didn’t break out, and HarperCollins didn’t even release it in paperback.

Worse, one of the judges for another award — one of the biggest in all of publishing — told me, “Yours was my favorite book of the year, and it was in the running for a nomination.” But it ended up not being nominated.

The book has also been under option as a feature film for a few years — I wrote the screenplay — but it’s on the back-burner now, and I’m increasingly doubtful it will ever get made.

I still like this book a lot, and I love the theme, which I can’t discuss without giving away the twist ending. And I really do think that ending is one for the ages.

Incidentally, did the ending confuse you? You’re not the only one. Here it is all spelled out — including a discussion of the theme I can’t talk about here.

The current version that’s on sale is one I self-published, considerably revised from the first edition.



"There's something in the dark!"

Zach lives with his grandparents on a remote island in Puget Sound in Washington State. With only his little brother, Gilbert, to keep him company, Zach feels cut off from the world. But when Gilbert is kidnapped, Zach tries the only thing he can think of to find him: astral projection. Soon, his spirit is soaring through the strange and boundless astral realm—a shadow place. While searching for his brother, Zach meets a boy named Emory, another astral traveler who’s intriguing (and cute).

As Zach and Emory track the kidnappers from the astral realm, their bond grows, but each moment could be Gilbert’s last. Even worse, there’s a menacing, centuries-old creature in their midst that devours souls and possesses physical bodies. And it’s hungry for Zach.


“Sometimes you pick up a novel that hits a narrative sweet spot, and Shadow Walkers is one of those. … I devoured the book, a good story for any age.”
– NPR’s All Things Considered

“Hartinger’s 8th novel deftly meditates on isolation, interpersonal connectivity, and how drastically the Internet has changed modern teen life. … Since his first novel Geography Club, Hartinger’s been at the forefront of the quiet revolution moving past stories that center around being gay, and infusing GLBT characters into mainstream Young Adult fiction.”
- Lambda Literary

“The creature in this book will haunt you. I don’t care if you are eight or eighty, this is a well thought out and well conceived baddie. Once or twice, I was sure I felt the chill of its presence as I read the book. It’s that well done. Creepy, horror, scary, creepy, terrifying and did I say creepy? … [And] I really, really liked Zach. He wasn’t whiny, he wasn’t annoying and a lot of teen protagonists can be. … Just a wonderful book.”
– Daemon’




This was an original paperback published by a small publisher. It’s a story about astral projection, but I really meant it as a metaphor for how the internet was changing teenagers, especially LGBTQ ones, in good ways, but also in very bad ones. I still think that’s a pretty smart take — and pretty prescient, we’ve since learned.

There were almost no initial reviews, and sales were lackluster. Once again, the dark themes split readers: some people really don’t like twisty or disturbing books.

But then, completely out of the blue, this little book from a nothing press got an rave review on NPR’s All Things Considered — a very popular national radio program in the U.S. Alas, it wasn’t in any bookstores, so it only ended up selling an extra 350 copies, mostly through Amazon. The publisher passed on my follow-up book.

But that review was still gratifying because almost everyone I’ve ever met heard it and emailed me to say, “Wow! Great review last night!”

Oh, and there is a typo in the very first sentence of this book that drives me absolutely crazy, and the publisher wouldn’t fix it, not even in the ebook edition. Go figure.



Fifteen years old and parentless, Lucy Pitt has spent the last eight years being shifted from one foster home to another. Now she’s ended up at Kindle Home, a place for foster kids who aren‘t wanted anywhere else. Among the residents, Kindle Home is known as the Last Chance Texaco, because it’s the last stop before being shipped off to the high-security juvenile detention center on nearby Rabbit Island–better known as Eat-Their-Young Island to anyone who knows what it‘s really like.

But Lucy finds that Kindle Home is different from past group homes, and she soon decides she wants to stay. Problem is, someone is starting a series of car-fires in the neighborhood in an effort to get the house shut down. Could it be Joy, a spiteful Kindle Home resident? Or maybe it’s Alicia, the bony blond supermodel-wannabe from the local high school who thinks Lucy has stolen her boyfriend. Lucy suspects it might even be Emil, the Kindle Home therapist, who clearly has a low opinion of the kids he counsels. Whoever it is, Lucy must expose the criminal, or she’ll lose not just her new home, but her one last chance for happiness.

In the tradition of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Louis Sachar’s Holes, Hartinger writes about a subculture of teenagers many people would like to forget, in a novel as fast-paced and provocative as his first book, Geography Club.

(For readers age 12 and up)


“Never have I read a book that screamed so loudly to be made into a movie…Don’t pass this one up!”

“A fast-paced, riveting story filled with multi-dimensional characters who command our admiration as they struggle against their personal demons. Grade: A”
– Rocky Mountain News

“A fast-moving, heartfelt story…beautifully conceived and executed, very well written [with] characters who seem very real…brutally honest [but] full of hope.”
– (Oregon) Statesman Journal

“Hartinger clearly knows the culture [of group home life]…The talk is lively, and the whodunnit will keep readers hooked to the end.”
– Booklist




This was my second novel, a follow-up to Geography Club. My editor said, “Now you should write something non-gay so you don’t get pigeon-holed,” and I thought it was great advice at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was a huge mistake. Basically, I had a brand with many happy readers, and I screwed it all up. The book didn’t bomb — and many teachers and librarians really loved it — but I think it confused readers, and it’s probably a big part of the reason why people didn’t understand that The Order of the Poison Oak, my third book, was a sequel to Geography Club.

Still, this is a cute little story. It’s based on my time working at a group home for foster kids, and I like the mystery that kicks in halfway through. But like most of my early books, it needed much more editing than it got, and the ending is too saccharine for this real-world situation.

What can I say? I like a happy ending.

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