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Read a full summary of The Box in the Woods, book #4 in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series. This page is full of spoilers, so beware. If you are wondering what happened in The Box in the Woods, then you are in the right place!

Special thanks to Susan Jensen, a BSR contributor, who wrote this great recap! Visit her blog to check out what she’s reading and see what’s on her mind. See the end of the recap for links to her Goodreads and Facebook accounts.

Maureen Johnson

4.4 stars on Amazon
4.08 stars on Goodreads
Add The Box in the Woods at Goodreads.

Truly Devious Series
#1 Truly Devious (recap)
#2 The Vanishing Stair (recap)
#3 The Hand on the Wall (recap)
#4 The Box in the Woods (this page)
#5 Nine Liars (synopsis)
#6 Untitled (Goodreads)

***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****

What happened in The Box in the Woods?

The Box in the Woods Plot Summary (With Spoilers)

After Stevie Bell solves the mystery of Iris Ellingham and Dottie Epstein’s murders and Alice Ellingham’s kidnapping (see plot summaries of previous books in the Truly Devious series), she becomes a bit of a celebrity. Now that the hubbub has died down, she’s having a very ordinary summer break from Ellingham Academy, the private school she attends during the rest of the year. She is living at home in Pennsylvania with her parents, working at a local grocery store, and maintaining a long distance relationship with her boyfriend, David Eastman, who is on the road working with a voter registration campaign.

Stevie receives an email from Carson Buchwald, owner of Box Box, a box subscription company. He recently purchased a summer camp in the Berkshires which was formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls. A famous quadruple murder, which has never been solved, took place there in 1978. Carson invites Stevie to work there for the summer and use her investigative skills to solve the cold case, the details of which are as follows:

In July of 1978, four teenagers—recently graduated high school seniors from the nearby town of Barlow Corners, Massachusetts, who were working as counselors at Camp Wonder Falls—went into the woods to party. Eric Wilde, the camp drug dealer, was picking up a weekly delivery of marijuana that was always hidden inside an old hunting blind at a remote camping spot situated about 4 miles from camp. The four teens sat around a campfire smoking weed until Todd Cooper and his girlfriend, Diane McClure, went into the woods to be alone. Eric left Sabrina Abbott at the fire while he ventured into the forest to relieve himself. None of them made it out of the woods alive.

A camper found Eric’s dead body the next morning on a path leading back to camp. He had multiple stab wounds and a massive head injury. When the police were called, they entered the woods looking for the three missing counselors. The teens’ corpses were found stacked neatly inside the hunting blind. Todd and Diane both had multiple stab wounds and head injuries. Sabrina had no head wound, but she had been stabbed 21 times. She was the only one with any defensive wounds on her body. On the box was a painted message reading SURPRISE.

The police developed three theories as to what might have happened: (1) a drug deal gone wrong (although the drugs had already been successfully delivered and all were accounted for when the police arrived on the scene), (2) a copycat crime mimicking a serial killer known as “The Woodsman” who was active in the general area at the time (although the teens’ murders lacked some of the methods used by the Woodsman that were purposely left out of the newspapers), or (3) a revenge killing. Todd Cooper was suspected of killing 11-year-old Michael Penhale in a hit-and-run incident the previous year. Although no one was ever arrested for the crime, it was generally known around town that Todd was the driver. Because he was the son of the mayor, he was never

charged. Michael’s older brother, Paul, worked at Camp Wonder Falls with the murdered teens and was seen there, playing guitar at the lake house, at the time the killings purportedly took place by two witnesses (one of whom was Shawn Greenvale, Sabrina’s ex-boyfriend, who may have wanted his own revenge on Sabrina and her new crush, Eric).

The case was handled poorly by the local police. Much of the evidence collected at the time of the crime is no longer available. Police do have the bloody t-shirt Eric Wilde was wearing on the night of his murder and it has been tested for DNA; the blood does not match that of the Woodsman.

Although Stevie is not an outdoorsy person, she takes the job in order to get back on a case. Carson said she could invite friends, so Stevie reaches out to her pals from Ellingham: Nate Fisher, Janelle Franklin, and David. (Vi is not available since they are spending the summer visiting family in Vietnam.) David declines because he feels like his work with the voter registration campaign is too important since it allows him to repay some of the damage done by his corrupt father, Senator Edward King. Nate and Janelle agree to come. When they all arrive at camp, Carson gives them a rundown of the case and says the camp is theirs to explore.

Carson, who seems to be made of money, paid to have an addition to the Barlows Corner public library built in honor of Sabrina Abbott, who volunteered there during the summers. He invites Stevie, Nate, and Janelle to its grand opening. He tells them he has also brought together a number of the townspeople, many of whom were involved in some way with the murders at Camp Wonder Falls. The kids meet Allison Abbott, Sabrina’s younger sister, who is still adamant about finding her sister’s killer. They also meet Sergeant Graves, a cold case detective who has been assigned to the case. Allison tells the detective that Sabrina always kept a diary, which has never been found. She asks Sergeant Graves to find it for her. Graves agrees to try.

Carson makes a public announcement that he is making a podcast about the camp murders. The Barlows Corner residents are stunned and outraged, especially Allison, who accuses him of throwing money around the town in order to buy the townspeople’s participation in the podcast. While Carson deals with the fallout, the kids go with Patty Horne—a woman who knew the murder victims—to the bakery she owns in town. Stevie notices a photo of Patty’s father on the wall. Patty tells them that when she was a senior in high school, she was at loose ends, hanging out with the wrong crowd (Todd and Diane, in particular) and unsure what to do with her life. Her mother died when she was young and she was being raised by her strict father, a war hero who talked little about his past and didn’t like having his photo taken. He encouraged her to go to culinary school and helped her open her business. Now deceased, he is memorialized on the bakery walls by his devoted daughter.

Always in trouble, Patty had been on house arrest at the camp on the night of the murders. A few days before the incident, she says, Sabrina had come to her and confessed that she made out with Patty’s drug dealer boyfriend, Greg Emerson. Patty was so upset she left camp and went home. Bored at home, she went back to camp the next day, made up with Greg, and got

herself punished for making out with him at camp. Although she worked with campers during the day, at night she had to stay in the nurse’s cabin, where she could be watched by the insomniac camp nurse. If Patty hadn’t been trapped there, she would have been in the woods that night with her friends.

Patty also tells them that after the murders occurred, there was a memorial in town for the victims. Some of the town’s teenagers, including Patty, gathered in the football field to chat. Greg roared up on his motorcycle, already drunk or high or both. They fought. He got on his motorcycle and sped off. She was enraged, screaming and wildly waving her flashlight around in her anger. Moments later, Greg crashed going around a sharp bend and died of his injuries on the way to the hospital.

That night, in the cabin Stevie and Janelle are sharing, a horror-stricken Janelle wakes Stevie up. On the ceiling above Stevie’s bed is painted the word SURPRISE. The girls discover that their cabin is still locked from the inside and there are no signs of forced entry. After touching the paint, they realize that it’s dry. They decide it was painted on the ceiling at some point previous to their occupation of the cabin; somehow, they hadn’t seen it when they moved into the cabin the day before. Still freaked, they ask Carson to install security cameras on their cabin.

When they meet up later that day, Carson tells Stevie he also received a creepy, anonymous message the night before. He shows her a cardboard box with the words OPEN ME, CARSON written on the lid. Inside are three dolls, obviously representing Todd, Sabrina, and Diane. SURPRISE is written on the inside of the box’s lid. He found the box on his property, but outside the range of his security cameras. Carson gives Stevie a bag of security cameras for her cabin as well as the creepy box. When Stevie shows it to Janelle—a crafting expert—Janelle notes that it was not a hastily thrown together project. It took time to put it together, meaning that whoever did it knew Stevie was coming to camp, a fact most locals had only learned the previous night when Carson announced it at the library grand opening. Janelle installs the security cameras at the cabin.

Allison Abbott comes to camp to apologize to Stevie for her angry reaction to Carson’s announcement about the podcast. She invites Stevie to visit her at her home the next morning. Stevie also gets good news from David—he’s worried about her and will be coming to the camp in a few days.

Stevie goes to Allison’s house. Allison, a librarian and archivist, shows Stevie the room where she keeps all of Sabrina’s things in precise order. There are turtle items everywhere, including a ceramic figurine of one, because Sabrina loved turtles.. Allison tells Stevie that although Shawn was clingy, he was too nice to kill anyone. Besides, he was with fellow counselor Paul Penhale at the camp the night of the murder. Still asking questions, Stevie goes with Allison on the run she takes every day along the lake. They stop at Arrowhead Point, the spot where Allison always pauses in her run because it has the best view.

Using a number of different clues, Stevie figures out who painted the message on her ceiling and who left the box for Carson to “find”: Carson. When she confronts him, he says he did it to make the case more exciting. He promises not to interfere again.

When Stevie visits Janelle at the art pavilion to tell her about the visit to Allison’s house, Janelle gives Stevie a receipt she found that was typed by Sabrina. It contains a list of art supplies that the girl had ordered prior to her death. Considering Allison’s obsession with collecting anything and everything having to do with her sister, Stevie figures she would like to have it. Stevie bikes into town and gives it to an appreciative Allison. In return, Allison takes her to meet Paul Penhale at the veterinary practice where the man works with his husband. Paul tells Stevie he was outraged that Todd killed Michael and got away with it, even though there was a witness to the hit-and-run. No one saw damage on Todd’s Jeep because it mysteriously disappeared from his driveway, only to reappear a week later with no dents. Even though Paul is still angry at the gross miscarriage of justice, he insists he had nothing to do with the murders. He was at the camp all night and there were several witnesses that saw him. His family was also in the clear because a neighbor couple was visiting their house at the time the murders were committed.

David arrives at the camp. He pitches a tent in the woods, where he will camp for a few days before he has to be back at work.

Carson arrives to tell Stevie that Allison Abbott fell to her death that morning when she paused, as she always did, at Arrowhead Point. Stevie goes to the Point and talks to witnesses who say they saw Allison fall off the cliff into the rocks below. They also say she was alone at the top. They would have been able to see if anyone else was there. David arrives and the two of them borrow a canoe and get as close to the crime scene as they can. Stevie is convinced it was no accident. Allison was a careful, precise person who ran the same route every day. Someone took advantage of her exactness and used the knowledge to push her off the cliff.

Later that day, Stevie gets a call from Susan Marks, the woman who ran the camp when the murders occurred. She says before Allison died, she suggested Susan call Stevie. They meet at her home in Barlows Corner. Susan tells Stevie she used to be the P.E. teacher at the local high school as well as the camp director each summer, so she knew the murder victims well. She confirmed seeing both Paul and Shawn in the lake house that night. She also says she personally cleaned out the cabins in which the murder victims were staying. If Sabrina’s diary had been with her other things, Susan would have found it. As Stevie and David are leaving Susan’s house, they spot Shawn Greenvale. Stevie tries to talk to him, but Shawn shuts her down.

David texts Stevie when the police have cleared out around Arrowhead Point and the hiking trail is open again. As they are examining the area where Allison fell from the cliff, David mentions that a family friend who doesn’t like his father has offered to pay for David to attend a university in England. Already in shock over Allison’s death, Stevie doesn’t react well to the news. She stomps back to camp by herself. When she goes to David’s campsite the next morning to apologize, David and all his things are gone.

Nate bikes into town with Stevie in an effort to take her mind off David. While they’re sitting in a diner, she realizes she knows where Sabrina’s diary is hidden. Together, they bike to Allison’s house and Stevie uses her student ID to unlock a side door. In the kitchen, they find the turtle-shaped figurine Stevie had noticed in Sabrina’s memorial bedroom on her last visit. The receipt Janelle found made Stevie realize it wasn’t just a figurine, but a cookie jar big enough to hide something inside. When Stevie breaks it, Sabrina’s diary tumbles out.

Just as Stevie starts reading the diary, they hear the front door opening. They creep out the side door and make a run for their bikes. As they’re escaping, Nate points out that there is no car in the driveway. Whoever entered the house arrived on foot. They also notice that their bikes are missing, meaning they’ll have to run through the murder woods at night in order to get back to camp. As they start running down the lake path, a bullet whizzes by their heads. With more bullets flying, they discover they’re trapped on Point 23, a rocky ledge over the water where multiple people have fallen to their deaths over the years. Not having any other choice, they leap over the cliff into the lake.

As soon as she surfaces, Stevie screams loudly that the diary is gone. She also realizes that she has hurt her arm and can barely swim. To her shock, she hears David’s voice calling to her and Nate. He grabs a kayak and rescues them from the water. David explains that he only packed up his campsite because the spot had flooded. His phone had been ruined in the flooding, so he didn’t see the apology text messages she had been sending them. He assures her he would never have left without saying goodbye.

After passing out, Stevie wakes up in the hospital. She is exhausted and drugged, but she notices weird flashing lights in her room that remind her of something said by one of the people she interviewed. Before the painkillers kick in, she asks for a Sharpie. On the new cast decorating her arm, she writes, “light, flash, form,” and then succumbs to sleep.

The next day, Stevie calls David to pick her up. She escapes the hospital and they drive out to Point 23 to look for Stevie’s backpack, in which she had stashed Sabrina’s diary. They don’t find it then, but Stevie later admits that she did retrieve it, only she didn’t tell anyone. She had yelled that it was missing so that the person pursuing them thought the diary was gone.

Stevie uses the Nextdoor app to post a message about the murder reveal she’s planning for that evening at Carson’s barn. A large crowd comes, including Paul Penhale, Susan Marks, Patty Horne, Shawn Greenvale, and Sergeant Graves. Stevie has prepared a slide show about how she solved the murders. She reveals that:

  • Paul Penhale was actually not in the lake house with Shawn Greenvale on the night of the murders. He had, in fact, snuck out to secretly meet a boy he liked. Paul was so afraid to publicly reveal his homosexuality in 1978 that he allowed his friends to lie for him, saying they saw him in the lake house. None of them had revealed the truth until now.
  • According to Sabrina’s diary, after she broke up with Shawn, she started hanging out with a different, rougher crowd. Greg—Patty’s boyfriend—invited her to go to the Hornes’ house one night to swim. He said he had been invited to use the pool anytime he wanted and, besides, no one was home. Then, Mr. Horne came outside, unaware of the teens’ presence. He was accompanied by a man who began speaking to him in German about things the men did in Berlin during World War II. Sabrina had been studying German and could make out most of what they were saying. Mr. Horne told the man to come back in the evening for a barbecue. After making out with Greg in the cabana, the two snuck away from the house.
  • The next day, Sabrina returned to the Hornes’ home for a pool party. She was puzzled when she noticed that deck furniture that had always been in the same place had been moved. There was also some change spilled in the deep end of the pool.
  • Sabrina was so unnerved by the experience at the Hornes’ that she went to the hotel where the German man said he was staying. She discovered that he never checked out of the place. When she called his phone number repeatedly, he didn’t answer. Creeped out, she tells Eric everything. She also tells Patty everything—about kissing Greg and about her dad’s conversation. Patty is so upset that she throws up from crying. Later, Sabrina ordered some books about Nazis from the library. When she picked them up in town, she ran into Mr. Horne and accidentally mentioned something he had said in his conversation with the German man.

Then, Germaine Batt (a dogged student reporter from Ellingham Academy) comes on the screen and talks about her research into the German man, whose name was Wendel Rolf. She says she contacted a relative of Rolf’s and he said Wendel disappeared in 1978 and was never seen again. She then talks about a man that was mentioned in the conversation between Mr. Horne and Wendel: Otto von Hessen. Von Hessen was a high-ranking Nazi official who disappeared from Berlin in 1945 right before the city fell. When Germaine puts up photographs of Horne and von Hessen, it’s clear they are the same man. She explains that the real Arnold Horne—who closely resembled von Hessen—was an American spy in World War II working against the Nazis in Berlin. Von Hessen needed a way to escape justice in Germany, so he stole Horne’s identity and has been living under it ever since. When Wendel saw the name Arnold Horne and a rare photograph of him in a newspaper, he excitedly traveled to Barlows Corner to reconnect with an old friend. He realized at some point during their conversation that he was not, in fact, talking to Arnold but to von Hessen. Rolf was never seen or heard from again.

How did The Box in the Woods end?

When Germaine finishes, Stevie turns to Patty. She surmises that when Patty met Wendel Rolf, she had no idea who he was or anything about her father’s Nazi past—until Sabrina confronted her about what she’d seen and heard. Patty told her father, who then confessed that he had

killed Rolf and why. In order to protect the family, Sabrina and Greg had to be silenced permanently. Patty thought of the perfect place: the drug drop-off spot in the woods. Since Sabrina and Eric were already planning to go there, it would work well. Todd and Diane? They were collateral damage. Patty needed an alibi, so she made sure she was caught making out with Greg so she would be punished by being confined to the nurse’s cabin at night.

Greg couldn’t be left alive, so Patty and her father planned his murder as well. When Greg zoomed away from the memorial service, already drunk, Patty made an emotional scene, waving around a flashlight. Her light bounced off the high school’s oversized sign, acting as a signal to her father that Greg was coming. Mr. Horne had a powerful flashlight that he shone into Greg’s eyes, ensuring the young man would be blinded, causing him to run off the road, creating a fatal accident.

Stevie also surmises that when Stevie gave the art supplies receipt to Allison, Allison realized her sister’s turtle sculpture was more than it seemed. It was a cookie jar that was large enough to hide a diary in. She couldn’t get it open, though, without damaging her beloved sister’s creation (something she would never do), so she called Patty for help. Worried that she would be found out as the daughter of a Nazi murderer instead of a lauded war hero, Patty had to kill Allison before she read Sabrina’s diary. She used her professional kitchen to freeze sheets of water on large baking sheets, which she then set up at Arrowhead Point, knowing Allison would stop there on her daily run. The ice caused Allison to slide and fall off the cliff. The evidence of foul play then melted away in the sun. Stevie found evidence of food dye at the crime scene, proving that Patty dyed the ice to camouflage it from Allison’s view.

Although Patty denies everything at first, she has an outburst in which she basically admits her guilt. Sergeant Graves steps forward, saying that she knows Patty has a gun registered in her name. She also says she has a warrant for the firearm as well as for collecting Patty’s DNA for matching to the blood that was on Eric Wilde’s t-shirt.

In the novel’s last scene, Stevie and David are sitting by the lake, David tells her that while he is going to go to school in England, he’s not going to go for free. He’ll use what savings he has to pay for college himself. He also tells Stevie he loves her and hopes she’ll visit him in England.

There you go! That’s what happened in The Box in the Woods. We hope you enjoyed this The Box in the Woods summary with spoilers.

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truly devious
the vanishing stair
the hand on the wall
the box in the woods
nine liars

Special thanks to Susan Jensen, a BSR contributor, who wrote this great recap! Visit her blog to check out what she’s reading and see what’s on her mind. See the end of the recap for links to her Goodreads and Facebook accounts.

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