Teenage super-sleuth Stevie Bell just solved one of America’s most infamous cold cases. So where’s she going next? Summer camp!
Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious” young-adult trilogy introduced the teenage super-sleuth and featured her solving a high-profile murder mystery that had haunted her prestigious Vermont private school, the Ellingham Academy, since the 1930s. Stevie’s new standalone adventure, “The Box in the Woods” (Katherine Tegen Books, out June 15), catches up with the young detective and her friends the summer after their insanely chaotic school year as Stevie’s recruited by the enigmatic owner of a New England sleep-away camp to do a true-crime podcast about four counselors slain there in 1978. No murderer was ever caught.
Johnson says the setting was the “natural choice” for Stevie’s next case: “I didn’t have to think about it very long. Murder, remote locations, serial killers – that’s camp for you.”
The cover of YA summer-camp murder mystery "The Box in the Woods" by Maureen Johnson. (Photo: KATHERINE TEGEN BOOKS)
Like the “Truly Devious” books, the “Box in the Woods” mystery unfolds over parallel timelines: the 1970s and present day. One difference this time around is while the Ellingham case happened several decades before, Stevie’s investigation of the campgrounds and nearby small town involves family and friends of the victims who’ve not been able to move on from this life-altering incident.
“The only difference between tragedy and plain historical fact is time. The Jack the Ripper murders are tragic, but now we treat them as kind of cartoonish fun,” explains Johnson, who’s already working on Stevie’s next mystery. “There are always people involved – people who suffered and people who have lost loved ones, no matter when these things happened. If they happened in the recent past, the feelings are still very much alive and people need answers. I read and listen to a lot of true crime stories, and I always try to remember that.
“It’s also what I like about modern true crime: There are people using it to get answers, to provide help for survivors and families. This is also Stevie’s purpose. She’s completely serious about solving the case.”
USA TODAY has the first exclusive excerpt from “The Box in the Woods,” which showcases the humor Johnson weaves into the sleuthing shenanigans: Stevie’s gained some fame for solving the Ellingham case, but before she gets the call to go to camp, she’s back home in Pennsylvania working the evening shift at a grocery store and the customer at the deli counter doesn’t care Stevie is a teen Sherlock.
After introducing Stevie Bell in her "Truly Devious" YA series, author Maureen Johnson sends the young detective on her first standalone mystery with "The Box in the Woods." (Photo: ANGELA ALTUS)
“She’s become the Girl Detective. But fame is fleeting,” Johnson says. “A few winks on the social-media cycle and all that excitement seems to be gone. She’s home for the summer. She has no case to work on. She’s just Stevie Bell again, slicing lunchmeat.”
The author adds that, for readers, this is “a relatable feeling, when you’ve done something and you feel you’ve peaked! Then it’s over. Or the end of school, when the world shifts and your routine changes. Or maybe even now, as we slowly come out of lockdown. It’s the ‘Now what?’ moment. Also, I worked at a Wawa – I remember those moments at the slicer.”
Read below an exclusive excerpt from Chapter 1 of “The Box in the Woods” by Maureen Johnson:
Murder is wrong, of course. Stevie’s future was predicated on that fact. She wanted to solve murders, not commit them. To solve them, you had to understand why they’d occurred. Motive. That was the key. It was all about motive. Understand the reasons behind the act. What pushes another human being to that point of no return? It has to be a strong impulse.
“I’ll have . . . a pound of . . . is that . . . do you have . . . low-sodium ham?”
“Yes,” Stevie said, staring at the woman on the other side of the deli counter.
“Which one is that?”
“It’s the one marked ‘low-sodium ham.’”
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