Teenagers, especially girls, are so often the focus of true-crime podcasts that these real-life horror stories might be taken as cautionary tales. It makes sense, then, that YA novelists such as Courtney Summers (Sadie) and Kit Frick (I Killed Zoe Spanos) have found inspiration in the lurid appeal of these online documentaries. The second YA thriller from author Tom Ryan (following his Arthur Ellis Award winner Keep This to Yourself) tells the story of a missing girl from the perspective of a young podcast host. This approach provides the opportunity for reimagining a classic teen detective yarn in the context of our current media climate.
By day, 17-year-old Dee is a low-key high-school student in the town of Redfields. By night, she’s the Seeker, the anonymous host of Radio Silent, a podcast she records in her attic bedroom. The Seeker acts as the conduit for the Laptop Detective Agency – an online conglomerate of amateur crime solvers.
In a case that echoes the abduction of Dee’s best friend when they were kids, a girl who now resides in Dee’s childhood home goes missing. Things become even stranger when the police find a note that reads, “You knew you were playing with fire when you moved into this house.”
The story contains some flatly drawn elements: Redfields is a bland Anytown, supporting characters are swallowed by singular traits, and tropes such as the love-interest-next-door teeter on cliché. But the thrills are as fresh as next week’s Netflix obsession. Phones are wielded like weapons, sleuthing means scouring search histories, and escaping certain doom hinges on the speed of an internet connection.
Ryan writes for his teen audience in believable ways; the adults in the story truly don’t understand. When a detective who worked on the earlier abduction arrives to interview the now teenaged Dee, he tells her, “You’ve grown up.” “How am I supposed to respond?” she thinks. “You’re looking older yourself?” Dee’s family is supportive yet misguided. Her father is fossilized in the era of ’90s grunge while her mom calls her “honey” when Dee feels more like a “champ” or “buster.”
Ryan writes his protagonist’s queerness with a welcome casualness. Dee’s attraction to her neighbour, Sarah, is subtly unrolled over the first third of the novel but never becomes a plot point – the coming-out narrative of so much LGBTQ2S+ literature is resolved before this story even kicks off.
While it’s refreshing for a queer teenager’s love life to be written as no big deal, Ryan doesn’t quite strike the right balance. The romance fades into the background, only to come roaring back at intervals in dramatic scenes that feel unearned. Sarah falls into the trap of so many love interests, her own role underwritten in service of the lead.
More successful is how Ryan critiques the sensational media landscape that turns the members of a community affected by crime into (often reluctant) celebrities. Quinlee Ellacott, the star reporter of an online news organization called BNN (which combines the worst of Nancy Grace, InfoWars, and TMZ), sets out to expose the true identity of the Seeker. There’s a thin line between the armchair Reddit detectives who help Dee solve her cases and the true-crime audience that reaches its own verdict based on Quinlee’s scandal-rich reporting.
An abrupt change in setting in the final act leaves some promising plot points dangling. But the storytelling is genuinely exciting with thrills wrung from unique scenarios that feel authentically grounded in Gen Z’s digital lives. Even adult readers searching for an effective page-turner will enjoy I Hope You’re Listening, which delivers the excitement of true crime without the uncomfortable moral conflict.