“The Box in the Woods” is a murder mystery by Maureen Johnson, and in it we see the return of Stevie Bell, the super sleuth who solved the “Truly Devious” murders at Ellingham Academy in Maine in the three books that constitute that series. While this mystery features Stevie and her friends, it definitely works as a stand alone mystery, also. The setting is a summer camp where decades ago, four teenage camp counselors were murdered in the nearby woods. Three of the bodies were found in a hunting box on which the word “Surprise” had been painted. It was gory and gruesome and remained unsolved.
Enter Stevie Bell. She is approached by Carson Buchwald, the founder and CEO of the company Box Box, which sends out boxes of boxes to those who subscribe; he has bought the summer camp with an eye toward solving the decades-old mystery and featuring a podcast of the process. He wants Stevie and her friends to be additional “counselors” at the camp but to also solve the murder.
Johnson does a brilliant job giving us all we need to know about Stevie and her friends, Janelle and Nate. We also meet Stevie’s boyfriend, David, and we quickly learn all we need to about all of them. Johnson obviously had fun creating Carson’s character, the wealthy eccentric who introduces us to “Think Jams” and men wearing harem pants.
The narrative alternates between July, 1978, and the present, as we learn about what happened on that tragic night up to the moment of the murders, and we also learn what Stevie is doing to solve them. The setting, Barlow Corners, becomes almost another character in its small-town creepiness. Especially in 1978, it was a town where everyone knew each other and the secrets that had been hidden. At least, most of the secrets. There was one secret, well hidden, that resulted in the murders of the four teenagers. This idyllic small town with a statue of its Revolutionary War “hero” has a dark undercurrent.
We learn about the despicable captain of the football team who killed a child in a hit-and-run accident that was covered up by his father the mayor, and the chief of police. Even the camp murders, we learn, were poorly handled and poorly investigated. But as Stevie begins to talk to those close to the murdered teens, to those who still live in the small town after all these years, she wonders if this is a mystery she can solve. Allison, the sister of one of the murdered teens, Sabrina, has been trying to find Sabrina’s diary for all these years. She knows that there was a diary, and she feels that it would bring her closure to find it and have it. Stevie wants to help her.
When there is an accident and someone close to the investigation dies, Stevie is convinced that it’s really a murder. But even her friends are reluctant to believe her. There is no evidence to back up her claim. But, of course, as Stevie and her friends get closer to the solution, it’s their lives that might just be in danger.
As always, Johnson’s writing keeps us hooked from the start. While Stevie is definitely a curious character (pun intended), she’s got a good heart and does things for the right reasons. She really cares about helping people. In fact, all of the characters have their unique quirks and foibles that make them real to us — real people whom we want to see succeed. And we really, really want to know what sick person killed those teenagers. Because the only one who really deserved to die is Todd, the teen who killed a boy without, apparently, suffering a moment of grief. The solution is one that is unexpected, although we might have had slight moments of suspicion about certain events. Johnson’s careful plotting leads us to her reveal and it all makes sense. Beautifully. Brilliantly. Truly Deviously.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books, for review purposes. Thanks to Megan Beatie, MB Communication.