Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson

The fifth Stevie Bell novel, and the last to date, although I saw that Johnson is writing more.

Stevie’s back at Ellingham, with most of her friends: Janelle, Vi and Nate are there as well, hard at work on their college applications, while David is away at school in London. Stevie is struggling: she lacks focus except when hyperfocused on a case, and right now there’s no case. “[Hers] was a good brain, but it had only two modes–fog and frenzy.” She’s not functioning well at ‘just’ going to school; she pines for David, and she’s unmotivated. She can’t wrap her head around the college stuff at all. (I begin to think that there’s something diagnosable about Stevie, between her unfocused/hyperfocused poles and her difficulties with social cues, but that’s not my job and she’s fictional. That’s Johnson’s job.) To save the day, a drunken late night call from David sets up a trip for Stevie and her friends to visit London: ostensibly for a little study abroad but mainly, obviously, for the couple.

There’s a cold case – Stevie’s specialty. It involves nine friends who called themselves ‘the Nine’ when they were college students back in the 1990s, and they are obviously counterparts to Stevie and her crew in some respects. There is also Stevie’s evolving relationship with David, her troubles relating to other humans in general, her detective mastermindedness, and everyone’s anxiety about college applications.

I had some frustrations about this novel. I’m disappointed in Stevie, and in David, and frankly, in Johnson as well. [Mild spoilers follow.] In this installment, Stevie makes a big error in her friendship with – well, with all of them, but particularly with Janelle. It is in line and in theme with the title, and the themes of the case she’s working on (which she points out to us herself, in case we’d missed it): the friend group who’ve experienced the murders (two in an old cold case and one present-day missing) are guilty of lying, and so is Stevie. Her crime against Janelle feels so serious to me, and I’m dreading Janelle busting her because I know Stevie’s life is going to change so profoundly when that friendship takes the blow. And then it just fizzles out, like, oh, everything is fine. I feel that Stevie doesn’t suffer consequences appropriate to her misstep. I was dreading the consequence; but when she gets to skip it, I feel that the author has let us down. I feel it was out of character for Janelle to respond the way she did.

And then comes David’s big bonehead move at the end. I guess it’s not entirely out of character, nor out of character for dumb teenagers. But I feel the let-down pretty hard. This one is less about inconsistency, at least, and more about my frustration with the character himself. My bigger gripe here (especially after it’s been a few days) is about the cliffhanger she’s left us on! (I think it was book two that also ended on a big one. But I was already holding book three! And book six doesn’t even exist yet!)

If anything, my frustrations are because I feel so much love for this series, so all is not lost yet. But I am now anxious for the next book in more ways than one.

Rating: 6 and a half slices of doner kebab.

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