The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson
Amateur sleuth Stevie Bell needs a good murder. After catching a killer at her high school, she’s back at home for a normal (that means boring) summer.
But then she gets a message from the owner of Sunny Pines, formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls—the site of the notorious unsolved case, the Box in the Woods Murders. Back in 1978, four camp counselors were killed in the woods outside of the town of Barlow Corners, their bodies left in a gruesome display. The new owner offers Stevie an invitation: Come to the camp and help him work on a true crime podcast about the case.
Stevie agrees, as long as she can bring along her friends from Ellingham Academy. Nothing sounds better than a summer spent together, investigating old murders.
But something evil still lurks in Barlow Corners. When Stevie opens the lid on this long-dormant case, she gets much more than she bargained for. The Box in the Woods will make room for more victims. This time, Stevie may not make it out alive.
Stevie Bell is back, and so is murder.
Murder from the 1970s, that is. After solving the famous mystery of Alice Ellingham’s disappearance, Stevie Bell hasn’t really found anything nearly so exciting. Working at the deli counter for the summer definitely doesn’t count as interesting. But then she receives an email inviting her to solve a decades-old cold case, one in which four camp counselors were killed. Known as the Box in the Woods murder, it’s her ticket out of deli counter monotony, and into what she does best: solving mysteries.
With the help of her friends from Ellingham, she means to make this summer count, putting the Box in the Woods case to rest at last. But when digging into old murders starts turning up new leads, it also turns up new dangers. Soon, Stevie is back in the center of a mystery whirlwind, and no one is safe. The question is, is she still the Stevie Bell who solved the Ellingham case, or is she the Stevie Bell who’s about to meet a very true crime end?
I missed Stevie Bell like you wouldn’t believe.
The Truly Devious series has a place of honor on my dedicated favorites shelf, mostly because I spent every minute of those three books digging into their deepest corners, trying to reach the solution before it was handed to me. Mysteries are pretty much my personal catnip, in one part because I like a good puzzle, and in another part because I like being right. (I know, that sounds terrible. But doesn’t it feel good when you say something and then you’re right? It feels good, trust me.)
So, missing Stevie led me to place a pre-order, which led me to curling up in bed with this book, which led me to this review. A fairly straightforward chain of events.
Which is probably why I’m a little bummed this didn’t knock my socks off as solidly as the core trilogy.
Don’t get me wrong! The Box in the Woods still sparkles with Maureen Johnson’s slightly oddball but very delightful sense of humor, as well as a cast you can’t help but love. (Except David. I still don’t like David. Sorry, guys, I just don’t.) Stevie’s back and ready to get answers, Janelle is the gal with a plan at any given time, and Nate is still avoiding writing his book, which remains deeply and painfully relatable.
But by the end, I felt like something was missing. The spark that drew me to the series in the first place wasn’t quite as bright. And the solution? Well, it’s in the solution.
It’s a little difficult to review The Box in the Woods while keeping it spoiler free, but bear with me, because I’m about to try.
Obviously, I don’t want to give anything away. Where’s the fun in that? This is a mystery, friends! You’re supposed to be puzzled!
But I’m a big believer in making sure the reader of a mystery has all the puzzle pieces they need to solve it, even if they don’t know it yet, and this time, it felt like a couple were missing. Not too many, mind you. There were a couple that show up with perfect clarity in hindsight, and a couple reasonable red herrings along the way.
But at the end of the book, I found myself wondering exactly how we ended up that deep into left field. In many ways, it makes sense, and in many other ways… Well, it’s convoluted, and not in the delightful riddle-filled way that Truly Devious is convoluted. More convoluted in that you did the first problem on the math test wrong, but still ended up at the right answer. Or did the problem right and still got the wrong answer? I’m not entirely sure which away around it should go.
Long story short, though, I mostly enjoyed The Box in the Woods and being back in the saddle with Stevie, but the explanation left a little something to be desired. It felt like a bit of a stretch, or like the final element was added by spinning a wheel and throwing a dart. Mostly hit, with a just enough miss.
The important thing, though, is that Stevie Bell is back.
I know, I know, I keep coming back to this. But it’s true! At the end of the day, I love this series because Stevie is an anxiety-riddled true crime aficionado who looks at things just differently enough to solve mysteries that have been cold for literal years. She’s fun, she’s kind of a teenage disaster, and she’s got her heart in the right place. After all, she’s not in it for fame. It’s about closure, about doing right by victims, by survivors.
And I suppose maybe it’s a teeny tiny bit about kicking the brain into high gear to solve a puzzle. I know the feeling. Love the feeling.
Which means I still recommend The Box in the Woods for any Truly Devious fan. Maybe it doesn’t quite have the spark of the core trilogy, but it’s still fun, and honestly? What’s more classic than a summer camp murder? Now’s the perfect time to give it a read, before camps close for the season and all the dismal weather outside makes it hard to imagine anyone enjoying the great outdoors. (Though no day, in the end, is a bad day for more Stevie Bell.)
CW: smoking, drug use, violence (including gun violence), loss of a loved one, child death