THE BOX IN THE WOODS by Maureen Johnson

the box in the woods - maureen johnsonOn summer break from her creepy, cherished school, and after closing the biggest case of her barely begun career, budding detective Stevie Bell is feeling lonely and adrift. Her friends are scattered to the winds, doing their own thing β€” and after solving probably the greatest mystery she’s ever going to come across, Stevie, despite her youth, is afraid she’s already become burned out.

Which is when she receives an an email from an eccentric entrepreneur explaining that he has recently purchased Sunny Pines, a summer camp that also happens be the site of the notorious Box in the Woods Murders, where, back in the seventies, four camp counselors were killed, their bodies gruesomely stuffed inside an old hunting blind in the surrounding woods. The morbid mogul means to record a true crime podcast about the case, and wants Stevie to help with the investigation. She can even bring her friends. It’ll be fun. So Stevie jumps at the chance.β €

Stevie, like Pandora before her, will open the box in the woods, out of which will crawl out not only the sinister secrets of a small, sleepy town, but also the malice long suppressed within.

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As much fun as I had reading the trilogy that preceded it, I enjoyed 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑩𝒐𝒙 π’Šπ’ 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑾𝒐𝒐𝒅𝒔 so much more. I tend to find that mysteries work best with singular, standalone stories, anyway, where, much like the many isolated settings and closed circle plots that populate the genre, the imposed restrictions generally allow for tighter, more focused narratives. And that is exactly what we get here: a mystery that is less intricate, to be sure, when compared to the puzzle that was the Ellingham affair, but which also manages to feel considerably more intimate and immediate.

The elements I loved from the previous books remain present here, with some even getting amplified. The characters are still very much quirky and slightly ridiculous, traits that extend even to recent additions to the cast like the camp’s new owner Carson, an insufferable industrialist who made his wealth selling a subscription box of curated boxes β€” as in, you get a monthly box full of boxes β€” called Box Box; and Lucas, an eight-year-old camper who happens to be a fan of Nate’s fantasy novel and whose sole mission seems to be to torture him into writing a sequel. Lucas’ obsession leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the novel:

“I think Lucas is going to π˜”π˜ͺ𝘴𝘦𝘳𝘺 your ass,” Stevie said. “Sorry about your ankles.”

“I swear to god that kid has been watching me in my sleep,” Nate said, wrapping his arms around himself.

Ridiculous, I tell you. Gotta love it.

Stevie’s pals Janelle and Nate are as delightful as ever. Even David, a character I found to be mostly unbearable, gets a decent showing here, but that’s probably due to the fact that he’s written with an entirely different personality. Nate is a personal favorite, so I was glad to see he got to shine in this book (something which he absolutely hated). Sadly this development does sort of end up sidelining Janelle, one of the few BIPOC characters in the series. A shame and a misstep, since there were a handful of clear ways her role could have been further developed. Alas. Hopefully Janelle gets more of a spotlight in future entries.

Stevie’s anxiety continues to be sensibly explored, which I will always appreciate.

The true crime angle is still, of course, prominent (𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘸π˜ͺ𝘡𝘩 𝘒 𝘱𝘰π˜₯𝘀𝘒𝘴𝘡!). Particular attention is given to the actual real world work of Frances Glessner Lee, a criminologist who built incredibly detailed dioramas depicting death scenes that were used to train homicide detectives in the early days of forensic science in the US.

There is also the surprising addition of some summer camp horror tropes. They help lend π˜‰π˜°π˜Ή π˜ͺ𝘯 𝘡𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘰𝘰π˜₯𝘴 a more menacing air. And although there’s nothing that’s ever explicit (this is YA, after all) the detail the book goes into with murder is notably chilling.

Another new aspect that left me impressed was the brief exploration of ethical dilemmas in criminal justice work. With the Ellingham case, for instance, Stevie had a benefit of distance that allowed her to deal with the facts in a calculating, clinical, detached manner. The players involved were all long gone, after all. With the Box in the Woods Murders, though, the crime being relatively recent, Stevie has to deal with witnesses who are very much alive, many of whom still carrying the trauma inflicted by the atrocious act. It’s uncharted territory for Stevie, and watching her navigate these moralistic waters was interesting indeed. Character growth! β €

Finally, thanks to the self-contained, concentrated nature of the stand-alone, I found the central mystery of π˜‰π˜°π˜Ή π˜ͺ𝘯 𝘡𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘰𝘰π˜₯𝘴 a lot stronger and significantly more satisfying than the present day puzzle of the main trilogy, the conclusion of which felt somewhat rushed and a little lackluster. This one felt properly wrapped up and, much like Glessner Lee’s dollhouse dioramas, perfectly compact. I was also thrilled to see Stevie finally getting to do a proper, honest-to-goodness Summation Gathering.

Mostly, though, I’m grateful that I didn’t have to wait 𝘡𝘰𝘰 long for another Stevie Bell mystery romp. Here’s hoping for many more to come.

THE TRULY DEVIOUS TRILOGY by Maureen Johnson

truly devious trilogy - maureen johnson

My murder mystery midsummer truly reached a zenith with the completion of Maureen Johnson’s π‘»π’“π’–π’π’š π‘«π’†π’—π’Šπ’π’–π’” trilogy. I had first read β€” and thoroughly enjoyed β€” the first entry last year, and I finished it feeling something I had not felt toward a series in quite some time: an eagerness to get to the sequel straightaway.

Despite my excitement, that did not happen. It’s that same old story: other books got in the way. But the news for the π˜’π˜―π˜ͺ𝘷𝘦𝘴 π˜–π˜Άπ˜΅ follow-up that began to come out out in May once again sparked my interest in the genre (the original film did the same β€” hence me picking up π˜›π˜³π˜Άπ˜­π˜Ί π˜‹π˜¦π˜·π˜ͺ𝘰𝘢𝘴 in the first place).

Anyway.

If you’ve followed my Instagram stories at all during these past few months then you already have an idea of how much fun I’ve had reading these books. They hit many of my targets: quirky, clever characters who are as ridiculous as they are resourceful; snug, well-thought out settings; atmosphere in abundance. All aspects that pretty much guarantee my enjoyment. I also admired the way Johnson was able to combine the tense, thrilling facets of true crime narratives with the more classic and considerably more chill vibes of the mystery genre.

Mainly though, I loved how, with the character of Stevie (our tenacious protagonist), Johnson explored the matter of anxiety with a perspective that can only come from intimate, immediate experience with the disorder: candid and sincere, but so full of empathy.

Mental health is health, and health is always a situation in flux. Many, many people have anxiety and depression, or other issues. It’s just a part of life for them. For me, anxiety has been an issue, and the way I have worked with it is to accept it as a part of me. I do stuff with it. It’s just there.

β€” Maureen Johnson

If I had anything in the way of criticism is that the conclusion did leave a bit to be desired. This may seem like a crucial misstep, but Johnson’s writing is so damn clever and compelling that it more than makes up for it. But in any case, it was the journey that made the whole experience worthwhile for me, and I will readily trail along in whatever other jaunts Johnson decides to send her stalwart sleuth next.

TRULY DEVIOUS by Maureen Johnson

truly deviousStephanie β€œStevie” Bell leads a life of crime β€” studying every aspect of it, at any rate. Most of her free time is spent reading old case reports or listening to true crime podcasts. She wants nothing more in life than to find a body in the library.β €
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She writes as much in her application letter to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school that focuses on unorthodox learning, basing itself on its founder’s philosophy of play as the best method for gaining knowledge. The grounds also happen to be the site of a particularly heinous crime committed back in the early days of the institute that was never suitably, satisfyingly solved. It’s a cold case Stevie has long been obsessed with and is certain she can crack.β €
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She is soon admitted into Ellingham, but before she even gets close to thawing the famous case, however, she gets her primary wish granted when she stumbles upon the body of a fellow schoolmate. The victim appears to have been murdered in a theatrical fashion not that dissimilar to the ones carried out all those years ago in the school by someone calling themselves Truly Devious, and this β€” along with other ominous coincidences β€” leads Stevie to believe the incidents are somehow connected, and that there is still much of the old mystery to uncover.
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Maureen Johnson’s π‘»π’“π’–π’π’š π‘«π’†π’—π’Šπ’π’–π’” is a riveting, utterly captivating read. A curious and effective mix between a classic Agatha Christie-style mystery and the more modern trend of true crime accounts β€” podcasts, in specific. Indeed, much of this book reads like a podcast transcript, which does a lot to help ground the story.β €
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A foundation that is much needed given the fact that Johnson populates the story with a cast of truly eccentric characters β€” think a Poirot mystery but with the residents of Stars Hollow running around. Curiously it’s the characters that prove to be both the book’s strength and weakness. One the one hand, the cast is wonderfully diverse, and Johnson has done an admirable job in terms of representation (cute queer representation! realistic portrayals of mental health issues!); on the other hand, they all have somewhat flat, one-note personalities: they are introduced at a certain level, dynamically speaking, and they rarely waver from it moving forward. In any other case these sort of hollow personalities would have been detrimental to the story, but Johnson writes such funny, witty dialogue for them (she essentially turns them into walking memes) that I can forgive it here. Murder mysteries are not traditionally known for fully-drawn, well-developed characters, at any rate; they deal with more flamboyant figures, the better to contrast with macabre misdeeds.β €
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But my favorite aspect of this novel is definitely the recounting of the Ellingham case, a narrative that is immediately arresting. Alternating between the chapters set in the modern day, the events are laid out through various forms: from website articles, to interview transcripts, to what seem to be passages of a nonfiction book (perhaps Stevie’s own report of the matter β€” the novel never explicitly states who is writing these). Johnson shows a deep understanding of the true crime genre with these entries, and they add an authentic air to the entire affair.β €
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π‘»π’“π’–π’π’š π‘«π’†π’—π’Šπ’π’–π’” is the first book in a series, naturally, and while I have had a hard time getting into sequels lately, I’ll be damned if this didn’t make me want to immediately pick up the next one.