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.

β€”

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.