A SPOILER-FREE Review of: The Box in the Woods (Truly Devious #4) by Maureen Johnson
GENRE: YA Mystery
LENGTH: 383 pages
This standalone mystery takes the characters from the Truly Devious trilogy, including true crime aficionado Stevie Bell, and puts them in summer camp. There Stevie must solve the murders of four camp counselors that took place in the late 70s.
Stevie and her friends’ characters and dynamics are much the same. Stevie’s friend group is one of my favorites in the many YA books I’ve read as they are so supportive of each other.
Something I was thrilled to see return was the mental illness and specifically anxiety/panic disorder representation. I suffer from both anxiety and panic disorders and having a protagonist like Stevie whose struggles feel real but who at the same time is not defined by them is so, so important to me. I can see it being just as meaningful to young readers struggling with their own mental health.
In the original trilogy, I did not support David and Stevie’s relationship as I found it frankly unhealthy and felt David was a total jerk. Thankfully David has much matured in this novel due to some off page (but mentioned in the original trilogy) life experiences. He is actually likeable now and is a good boyfriend. It was a nice, much needed change.
Just like the original trilogy the novel is told from the third person perspective of Stevie. It has a few chapters taking place in the past (1978 when the murders occurred), but unlike the original trilogy it doesn’t continue throughout the novel. This is because, unlike with the Ellingham Affair, the characters impacted by the Box in the Woods murders are still alive in present day. This gave the crime a lot more emotional impact than the Ellingham Affair because you see Stevie’s interactions with the survivors. I think it was a smart choice on Johnson’s behalf to go a different, more modern route for this mystery as it makes the book feel refreshing.
The novel is advertised as being about Stevie going to a summer camp to work on a podcast. This makes the novel sound like it will resemble novels such as Good Girl, Bad Blood or Sadie. However, while they discussed a podcast there never actually was one. So, if that was the draw for you then you’ll end up being disappointed. It wasn’t something I personally needed or even necessarily wanted, but I know a lot of people like having that element and I do think it would have suited the story well given that Stevie is well known within the novels to listen to true crime podcasts. Because of this I do see how that could be construed as a missed opportunity.
One really cool detail is how Johnson has Stevie reading from and using the methods of Frances Glessner Lee and her Nutshell Studies book (about studying crime scenes). This was a real person and a real book and definitely something that, if Stevie herself was also real, she would devour. I know a lot of readers probably won’t care about this particular detail but it’s the kind of thing that, as a writer myself, tickles me to see authors do.
Like with the original trilogy, this novel’s pacing is a tad slower but it’s never boring and it’s carefully crafted. There are lots of small things throughout that you as the reader may not think too much about but later turn out to have great significance. It’s the kind of novel that tests your own observational skills. There are moments of tension, terror, and comic relief and all of these balance each other out nicely.
FINAL THOUGHTS This was a perfect addition to the Truly Devious books and one I enjoyed just as much as the trilogy. Johnson did a good job of making it so you wouldn’t have to read the original trilogy to understand this one. Though it references the other books it doesn’t spoil anything so you could technically start with this installment and then go back and read the trilogy which is smart on the author’s part. I don’t know if Johnson has plans to write more Truly Devious books, but I sincerely hope she does because this is the series that made me fall in love with mystery and was the first time I read accurate anxiety representation. I’d love to see our true crime aficionado/young detective solving more mysteries (perhaps at other new locations) in the future.
If you’re looking for a similar book as this to read then might I recommend Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied? It is also a mystery taking place at a summer camp and featuring an important, clue filled diary. It also uses a dual timeline as well. It’s Sager’s only book I would recommend. It is adult, but if you just couldn’t get enough of this summer camp mystery formula then it’s a good option.
FINAL RATING: 5 ⭐️