There’s a line in ‘Country House’ by Blur that rings out, “But you’ll come to no harm on the animal farm in the country”, and while the country estate at the heart of Maureen Johnson’s new YA whodunnit isn’t quite an animal farm, there’s no denying that there’s a real undercurrent of irony in using this song in particular.
Nine Liars is the fifth instalment in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series following teen detective Stevie Bell, a crime-obsessed prodigy who attends an illustrious private academy and solves murders aplenty. For those unaware of Truly Devious, the original trilogy focuses on smaller cases but also the overarching mystery of the Lindberghs-esque disappearance of a 1930s magnate’s wife and infant child, while standalone sequel The Box in the Woods focuses on the grisly 1970s slaying of camp counsellors.
Much like the superior The Box in the Woods, Nine Liars is a standalone mystery and all the better for it, balancing a self-contained historical mystery with developing relationship dynamics from the previous novels. A new reader can, and should, pick up either of the standalone books as their entryway into the world of Stevie and her friends (the original trilogy is solid, even if the main mystery feels a little stretched thin and underdeveloped), and Nine Liars is nothing if not a wonderful entry to one of the best enduring YA mystery series.
Nine Liars follows Stevie, adrift in her future as she enters the final year of her studies at Bellingham Academy, who seizes upon the chance to visit her long-distance boyfriend David in London during term time. Bringing along her coterie of best friends, she soon discovers that David has befriended a girl tied to the mysterious slaying of two university graduates, members of a comedy troupe (not unlike Footlights) called simply ‘The Nine’, during a graduation party the troupe threw at a country estate in 1995.
The mystery at the heart of the novel is classic Agatha Christie, an obvious influence on Johnson’s writing; it’s not hard, especially not in these standalone stories, to see Stevie as a Gen-Z successor to Poirot. The plotting is solid and enjoyable, with time spent building the leadup to the crime through flashbacks that feel steeped in the novel’s 1995 setting (the culture war between Blur and Oasis gets a fun nod when the Nine arrive at the country estate, for example), although it will make you feel immeasurably old when realising how quickly time flows.
Best of all is Johnson’s skill in developing the returning characters. Stevie is an undeniable genius and root-worthy protagonist but one wracked with self-doubt that manifests as obsessive drive bordering into self-centredness. Her friends are equally messy and likeable, from introspective Nate to buoyant Janelle, and love interest David is a too-cool bad boy with hidden insecurities. It’s a shame that the novel’s other characters – mainly the members of the Nine who survived to the modern day – don’t get as much shading and depth, although Izzy, plucky niece of one of the Nine, fares a little better as she joins forces with Stevie and her friends.
Johnson’s love for British culture in infused in every page – the importance of fire doors is explored, and the group of friends explore every tourist hotspot in London. Several key scenes revolve around British food (an irony given how much of it is adapted from global cuisine) – a shocking discovery late into the novel happens around a full English, a romantic sojourn is lit by the neon lights of a kebab shop, and an early interrogation takes place over an Indian feast in a tiny kitchen.
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The main drawback to Nine Liars is the repetition of certain elements – upon the deployment of the denouement, we see the events from the killer/killers’ point-of-view but which are again told from the detective as part of the classic ‘gather the suspects and unmask the culprit’ ending to every classic whodunnit, which while working to the novel’s dual narrative structure, does mean that chunks of the exposition feel doubled unnecessarily and significantly slow down what should be a thrilling end to the narrative.
These are quibbles though for what is a thoroughly entertaining whodunnit that moves the Bellingham Academy gang’s adventures forward, while also leaving things with room – and some would say an outright need – for a sequel. After all, as Blur once sang, “He’s got morning glory and life’s a different story/Everything’s going jackanory/Touched with his own mortality”.
Nine Liars is out now from Harper Collins/KTegenBks.