The Box in the Woods (2021) is the fourth of a young adult mystery series, Truly Devious, with the difference from the first three books being that while those formed a connected mystery/set of mysteries, book 4 is a complete book in itself.
The Truly Devious series is set around Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Bell, who gets admitted to Ellingham Academy, a prestigious school in Vermont which takes in students who are passionate about and gifted in different areas and allows them to pursue a tailored curriculum which will best hone their skills in their field of interest. For Stevie, this was true crime, and she sought to investigate a mystery dating to the 1930s associated with Ellingham, where the founder’s wife and daughter had gone missing as also one of the gifted students from the school. As Stevie joins the school and begins to look into this, she is also faced with a present-day mystery with its own murders. Having solved both sets of murders, she has made a name for herself as an amateur sleuth.
In this book, Stevie is at home for the summer vacations, working at a salad bar and wondering what lies next since her stated purpose of solving the Ellingham case has been achieved, when she receives an interesting message. Carson Buchwald, the owner of a company called ‘Box Box’ and also a campsite, Camp Sunny Falls wants Stevie to come there and try her hand at solving a case from 1978, when the camp was known as Wonder Pines, and four camp counsellors/teens from the town were rather horrifically murdered in the woods, a case now known as ‘The Box in the Woods’ murder, one not quite solved. Stevie is interested of course and manages to set things up (that is, manipulate things a bit) so that her parents approve and arrives at Sunny Falls with best friends Janelle and Nate. Her boyfriend David is away working, but promises to visit.
In Barlow Corners, the town where Sunny Falls is, Carson announces rather publicly that he plans to make a podcast about the murders and so has invited Stevie there. This gets most of the town’s hackles up for it is still living with the burden of the tragedy, and does not wish to rake things up again. However, one victim’s sister, Allison Abbot comes to realise that Stevie is genuine and agrees to speak to her, also convincing the families of the others to do so. But evil seems to be lurking its ugly head again. Can Stevie solve this case?
Written in the same format as previous books with the initial narrative shifting back and forth between events in 1978 and current-day proceedings, before moving completely to the present, The Box in the Woods is a faced paced and engrossing read with a satisfying mystery at its core. The murders themselves are a bit dark and disturbing in terms both of having multiple victims as well as the fact that they were a little grizzly (though the book doesn’t go into unnecessarily detail) and seem to echo a serial killer. But some of the people Stevie talks to seem to have the feeling that the culprit was closer home. The book does give one a fairly good clue as to whodunit (and relatedly a bit of the why) some way in but how that connected up to the victims, one must read on and see. As Stevie starts to interview connected people and piece together things that happen, she begins to find herself and her friends in danger, too.
The book also gives us a glimpse of small-town America in its setting in Barlow Corners (the close-knittedness, the power dynamics where certain people remain beyond the law, and so on) as well as changing mores over time, with some aspects overlooked or accepted in the past which are taken more seriously in the present to things that were taboo back then but to which society has opened up now. All of these aspects come up in various threads of the case.
Through Stevie’s reading and investigation, we are introduced to the work of Frances Glessner Lee, and specifically her Nutshell Studies which were intricately designed dollhouse dioramas of real crime scenes used to improve the teaching of crime scene investigation. This was something I hadn’t come across before and it was interesting to learn of it. (One can apparently see these in 3D online, but they are supposed to be fairly graphic despite their size).
While unlike in the earlier volumes in the series, Stevie here isn’t specifically reading or speaking of Poirot, Johnson does include a nod to those stories in the denouement with Stevie assembling the whole cast if characters to make her big revelation. And for those who enjoy such things (as I do), there is a map of the camp and surrounding areas at the start.
All-in-all a great mystery, fast paced and interesting, also a little unsettling, and for me, a very enjoyable entry in the series.
Book details: Paperback, Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins, 2021; 383pp; own purchase.
This was the third of my #10BooksofSummer