Review of Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson

I did not vanish although it probably seemed that way. I have been bingeing the Truly Devious mystery series by Maureen Johnson in order to read and review the ARC of Nine Liars by December 27. The bingeing has probably taken me most of December but it was well worth it.

The heroine of the Truly Devious series is Stevie (Stephanie) Bell, the daughter of middle class conservative parents who look askance at their daughter because she has this obsession with murders. Stevie wants to be a detective and even at 16, she’s very good at it. Her parents would rather she behaved more normally with a respectable boyfriend, marriage, and kids. And, as we enter the world of Nine Liars, the fifth installment of the series, Stevie does have a boyfriend in David, the son of a politician whom Stevie’s parents adored. David, however, is studying in England while Stevie is continuing her studies at quirky Ellingham Academy. When an opportunity arises for Stevie to visit David, she convinces her friends as well as the school’s president that a week’s trip to London would be a good thing. Of course, a missing woman and a decades old murder come into play in Nine Liars.

Blurb: Stevie Bell solved the case of Truly Devious, and now she’s taking her detecting skills abroad when she becomes embroiled in a mystery from 1990s England. Another pulse-pounding and laugh-out-loud stand-alone mystery from New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson.

Senior year at Ellingham Academy for Stevie Bell isn’t going well. Her boyfriend, David, is studying in London. Her friends are obsessed with college applications. With the cold case of the century solved, Stevie is adrift. There is nothing to distract her from the questions pinging around her brain—questions about college, love, and life in general.

Relief comes when David invites Stevie and her friends to join him for study abroad, and his new friend Izzy introduces her to a double-murder cold case. In 1995, nine friends from Cambridge University went to a country house and played a drunken game of hide-and-seek. Two were found in the woodshed the next day, murdered with an ax.

The case was assumed to be a burglary gone wrong, but one of the remaining seven saw something she can’t explain. This was no break-in. Someone’s lying about what happened in the woodshed.

Seven suspects. Two murders. One killer still playing a deadly game.

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The thing about having binged all of the previous books in the series in rapid succession was that I noticed that the writing in Nine Liars was clunkier than usual. Far too often Maureen Johnson led us through England using Stevie’s anglo-ignorance to introduce places and items using “called” or “named” in phrases. Using this phrasing once or twice would have gone unnoticed but multiple times drew attention.

I found the flashback in this book occurring in 1998 to be far more interesting than the ones in the previous novels. The British characters, members of a university comedy sketch group, felt a little like the characters in the 1992 Kenneth Brannagh film, Peter’s Friends, except that murder is involved. Johnson drew these characters a bit more roundly and I cared about them more and, frankly, would have loved to have spent more time with them.

Stevie has always been a self-involved character, drawn into self, and sometimes oblivious, but she reaches her peak of being self-serving when she creates a lie that involves her friends. I found this to be particularly problematic as Stevie’s friends forgive completely despite the fact that she compromised their once-in-a-lifetime trip as well as their education and perhaps more remotely their lives. While Stevie does solve the case, the idea that she faces no repercussions for lying and basically abusing her friendship left a bad taste. Her friends are the best and probably deserve a little better (or a lot) from her.

Lastly. Stevie Bell in my mind is a slim blonde, hoodie-wearing 16-year-old Columbo. She is observant cataloger of information. In the way that Columbo solved cases by storing seemingly irrelevant facts is the same way that Stevie does and makes the ending of each novel a fun fest. While Nine Liars felt uneven, it’s still a fun treat for any reader who enjoys a quirky teenage sleuth.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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