When Monica Ropal started writing her debut YA mystery When You Leave, she wanted to bridge two aspects of literature that haven’t always gone hand in hand: a classic murder mystery, and an emotionally raw YA. While Ropal loved classic adult mysteries such as Nero Wolf, Hercule Poirot, and The Westing Game, she felt that most adult mysteries lack deep emotion, which is something the YA genre has in spades.
“[Adult mysteries] have the typical ‘hard boiled detective’ who is so intellectual, or possibly jaded that they are no longer affected much by the crimes they are trying to solve,” said Ropal. “What I love about YA in general is that it’s very emotional. That the characters are not jaded by built up experiences, so everything that happens is making a maximum impression.”
When You Leave is certainly a powerfully emotional read. Cass, the passionate and richly internal protagonist, is determined to find out who murdered her friend—and secret boyfriend—Cooper. One of her best friends is the primary suspect, but Cass and her skater friends are convinced he’s innocent—even if nobody else believes them. Soon Cass finds herself descending down a rabbit hole of dangerous secrets, suspicion, and lies that not only threaten her most precious relationships, but might wind up getting her killed, too.
Ropal’s goal of infusing a mystery with raw emotion is masterfully achieved in the character of Cass. There isn’t a single aspect of Cass’s life that’s easy emotionally. From her family — which includes a distant stepdad, her pregnant mom, and a little brother with autism — to her family’s sudden economic shift into more affluent circles, Cass is facing her fair share of emotional hurdles long before she’s embroiled in the search for Cooper’s killer. Not only is she navigating a new family, new neighborhood, and a new school, she’s also trying to balance her old relationships with her skater friends and her unexpected romance with one of the most popular guys at her school. The depth of Cass’s emotional journey wasn’t something Ropal took lightly.
“I remember a point, deep in revisions, walking around the grocery store overcome by all of these feelings. Then realizing they had nothing to do with me or my life; they were the emotions of Cass,” said Ropal.
Though “Cass’s voice came on strong,” Ropal admits to being amazed by her connection to the character over the course of writing, including being overwhelmed at the store. “I was surprised by how close we became.”
Cass also shares a unique bond with her group of friends. In particular, her best friend Mattie. Mattie is nonverbal after having had cancer surgery as a child. The friendship between Cass and Mattie is as deep as it is complex. Though Mattie doesn’t say a word, and rarely uses other forms of communications such as texting, he and Cass communicate freely, often disagreeing with one another. Ropal’s decision to explore a friendship through one nonverbal party was partly inspired by a real-life situation.
“I became very interested in nonverbal communication after reading an article about Roger Ebert, who lost his ability to speak after cancer surgery, and how he continues to communicate with his wife,” said Ropal. “Mattie was mute from nearly the very beginning [of the writing process]. I loved how it allowed me to explore their dynamic through physicality and other nonverbal communication.”
Cass may be a dedicated and faithful friend, but she isn’t exactly the typical savvy sleuth in the mystery world.
“She has zero objectivity,” Ropal said in regards to Cass as detective. “[S]he was not a very good sleuth. Which is okay, because she’s not a sleuth! Everything she perceives is colored by emotion.”
What Cass lacks as a sleuth, however, she makes up for in grit, intelligence, and genuine affection. Cass’s relationships are at the very center of When You Leave. From the rough-around-the-edges gang of friends she’s known since childhood, to her changing family, to her brief but passionate relationship with Cooper, it is Cass’s interactions with those around her that make her story both compulsively readable and deeply relatable.
For more, visit Monica Ropal’s website.