On the cover of Maureen Johnson’s latest Stevie Bell mystery, “Nine Liars,” are the words: When everyone lies, somebody dies. This little epigram becomes important in the story, and I am embarrassed to admit that I neglected to read those important words before finishing this twisty and cleverly crafted novel. Here Stevie is called upon to solve another cold case mystery—this one not even 30 years old and cold. Johnson’s setting are always an important part of her novels, and this one is no exception. The action mostly takes place at Merryweather, a large English country home belonging to a family with a minor title. There are diagrams of the house and the grounds at the start of the story, which help in picturing the action and events.
Stevie Bell has solved several cold case murders. She is semi-famous for those endeavors, but she is still struggling to finish her final year at Ellingham Academy, an elite and secluded school in the mountains of Vermont. In fact, one of the murders Stevie had solved was that of the wife of the school’s founder, Albert Ellingham. Because Ellingham was a fabulously wealthy and generous man, there is no tuition nor fees to attend his academy, only a rigorous application process. Rigorous in the sense that each applying student creates his or her own application. Stevie’s best friends are Nate, Janelle and Vi. Her boyfriend is David, and he is studying in London when this book begins.
As Johnson does in this series, she creates a timeline of the past, as well as the present. The narration takes us back in time to June of 1995, when a group of nine best friends from Cambridge are celebrating their graduation by visiting Merryweather, which is Sebastian’s family home. Sebastian is one of the nine best friends, and his parents are at their other residence in Greece, so the group has the large manor home to themselves. They drink freely and that first night play a game of hide and seek outside in the dark. It’s a rainy, stormy night, and when they stop the game in the early hours of the morning after the power goes out in the home, two of the group are nowhere to be seen. Rosie and Noel were beginning to be romantically involved, so it’s assumed that they are off somewhere on the grounds together. However the next morning, the bodies of both are found in a shed on the property, horribly disfigured from being mutilated with an ax.
It was assumed by the police that it was a burglary gone bad, but there are clues from the start that such is not the case. In fact, as we realize in retrospect, Johnson cleverly plants the clues for us to solve the mystery all along the narrative. In addition to the past narrative, we are privy to Stevie’s troubles as she and her friends travel to London for what is supposed to be a week of educational activities. When David’s good friend Izzy presents Stevie with her aunt’s mystery, the two unsolved murders become what is foremost on Stevie’s mind to the exclusion of all else, except her relationship with David.
Izzy’s Aunt Angela is one of the nine friends who were at Merryweather that tragic weekend. There is a secret she has been keeping for these many years, and once, after a surgery and while still under the effects of anesthesia, she mentioned something to Izzy about the murders and how something didn’t add up. After Stevie and her friends meet with Angela, she disappears. It becomes imperative that Stevie solve the mystery and find out what happened to Angela. They only have a week, and the day before they are scheduled to leave, the group is invited to visit Merryweather with the remaining members of the original group—six of them, now that Angela is missing. There is an emergency room physician, a Member of Parliament, two successful comedy writers, the viscount, and an actress. At least one of them has something deadly to hide. Stevie’s job is to figure it all out. No pressure.
The action never flags as we balance both timelines and see how the unfortunate events in the past meet up with the events in the present. Stevie lies to her friends about something important and the lie weighs heavily on her. We also see how lies from the past eventually catch up with the group of nine, diminished to a group of seven after the murders. But the star of the show, so to speak, is the combinations of mysteries and their eventual uncovering as we realize that there was not just one cover up at the time of the murder.
While this works as a stand alone novel, reading about Stevie Bell and her unusual abilities is a joy, so why not start at the beginning with the “Truly Devious” mysteries and follow her on her journey as she develops emotionally and intellectually. See how her deductive reasoning skills improve with each solved mystery, and see how she builds a community of friends. The series is billed as young adult, but adults will find each book charming and consisting of a solidly created mystery.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Katherine Tegen Books, the publisher, for review purposes.