Dichotomy in the Young Adult Consumer Market: Reading Beyond the Packaging of Kathy Reichs’ Virals

The release of Kathy Reichs’ Virals was permeated with much controversy. Review sites
were awash with disappointment that it lacked the realistic ‘grit’ of many contemporary
detective novels, denigrating it as ‘Famous Five’ fiction. The debate surrounding the novel’s
apparent ‘quality’ was due entirely to readers’ violated expectations of the content after
Virals was publicised and packaged less as a Young Adult detective thriller and instead
as a continuation of Reichs’ crime novels, indeed trading on the reputation of her ‘Bones’
creation. It belied the content which apparently relied on well-used, genre-bound narrative
and character devices from children’s literature.

Despite multitudinous comparisons of Virals to The Famous Five, a more accurate frame
of reference is the Scooby Doo phenomenon: from the auburn-haired ‘Daphne’ in Tory
Brennan to the male-embodied ‘Velma’ in the geeky, technologically adept Shelton, Reichs’
teenagers exhibit all the stereotypical facets of the 1970s cartoon, and equally its more
recent protagonists who exhibit renegotiated gender boundaries. Indeed, to actually be
called ‘meddlers’ completes this teenage group’s identification with, and subsuming of, the
Scooby-Doo ideology which dictates revealing of the villain(s) and acknowledgement that
everything was never as bad as appearances would have us believe. Yet it is precisely this
type of genre-inherited stereotyping which Reichs successfully manipulates here.

These unwitting heroes, whose transmogrification from merely Scooby-Doo detectives
into comic-book superheroes with wolf powers, provide a reassessment of cultural mores
which posit adults as authoritarian truth-tellers and the wealthy as powerful. The teenagers’
contraction of the mutated Parvo Virus is unlike the interstellar disaster which alters the
biology of the Fantastic Four, or the inherited mutations of the X-Men. This is, instead,
an avoidable catastrophe caused by devious, illegal, upper-class adult profit-making and
misguided scientific principles, which warns of the potential dangers of genetic science and
also opens up the debate on animal testing. Equally, their discoveries of ill-advised, immoral
and illegal adult life-choices equip them to understand that the adult world is a confused and
perverse place to be.

It is not just the teenagers’ new-found powers but their very human trait of empathising
with, and wanting justice for, another teenager which sets them apart from the superficial
young adults with whom they are forced to go to school and for whom the inheritance and
perpetuation of class image and money is the root of their criminalisation and physical and
mental destruction. In the heroes’ rights of passage from intelligent yet poor scholarship
students to accomplished superhuman detectives, they embrace the challenges of social
integration and cultural marginalisation which affect so many people globally. Growing into
the role of detective, clearly, means acquiring the experiences to recognise and deal with the
problems which affect us throughout life and acknowledging that crime, and the motivation
behind it, is every bit as bad as it appears.

Ultimately, Virals exemplifies how Young Adult fiction can not only encompass adventure,
suspend disbelief and ‘speak to’ its readers, but that it is capable of challenging adult societal
expectations and values. Maybe the adult packaging which caused such derision was not so
inappropriate after all.

By Claire Cowling, University of Hull

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