The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson

The Stevie Bell series continues, but we’ve left Ellingham behind, Stevie having solved the Truly Devious murders (although the world only knows a bit of that story). At this novel’s start, she’s puttering around at home with her parents, selling deli meats and cheeses at the grocery store and cleaning up the salad bar by night. Then she gets an invitation to really go to work: as far as her parents know, she’ll be a counselor at Camp Sunny Pines, but she’s really there to investigate the Box in the Woods murders of 1978, from back when this was Camp Wonder Falls. The tech-bro who’s hired her says he’ll employ her friends, too, which means Nate and Janelle, because David is enjoying his voter registration work in a different (and I’m pretty sure unnamed) part of the country. Stevie’s a bit disappointed, but she respects his mission.

Camp Sunny Pines is an amusing setting. Massachusetts is warm and muggy in the summertime, and Stevie is more cerebral than outdoorsy. She buys into the idea of rugged go-everywhere detectiveship in theory, but she quickly runs out of signature black t-shirts because she has to change them so often – these are sweaty environs, and she’s also doing far more running and biking than she’d like. It’s kind of fun to see her challenged in these ways. Her tech-bro boss does not have a good bedside manner for engaging with the community; Stevie is better at this, but less adept with her personal relationships, and one in particular: David (now her actual boyfriend) finds a reason to come out after all, but Stevie’s responsibilities and preoccupation with the case mean she doesn’t engage all that well with him. He does some driving her around, and tries to have an important conversation, but she’s too checked out. In contrast to what I said about the last few books, I felt sorry for David, who tries to be a good boyfriend and friend, while Stevie’s a bit awkward and inattentive.

I remain baffled by her friendships: Janelle, the purported best friend, is totally rad but much less a day-to-day ride-or-die joined-at-the-hip BFF than Nate, who I feel doesn’t get enough credit.

One of the things that made Nate and Stevie such good friends was their mutual hatred of sharing emotional things. Somehow, they managed to have a deeper bond by staying on the surface–as if they were snorkeling their feelings, floating along side by side, observing all of nature’s wonders without getting close enough to be stung by something under a rock.

That Janelle gets the best friend label is a feature of Johnson’s writing that just confuses me.

But I still love Stevie herself, even in her bumbling. There was, again, a passage that I hold onto as emblematic of her loveable personality. She’s preparing to meet David, and considers fixing herself up a bit, and then just kind of gives up – I love this facet of her, that she’s aware she’s not quite meeting an external social measure of so-called beauty but can’t bring herself to entirely care. (And David doesn’t. It’s fine.) I relate to this entirely.

The mystery is compelling, and I appreciate the final scene, even if the solution is a bit awkward too… I’m really here for Stevie’s clever mind, her interactions with other humans (for better and for worse), and her dear strangeness. I enjoy Johnson’s use of the classic feature wherein the detective just talks it out with her friends and acquaintances, and lets her mind drop things into place. I’m definitely excited about book five.

Rating: 7 crafts.

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