Check out an excerpt from Maureen Johnson’s new YA murder mystery ‘Nine Liars’

  • Teen detective Stevie Bell heads to Britain to solve a mysterious cold case involving the murder of two Cambridge University graduates in the 1990s
  • Take a peek at this upcoming young adult novel, which will hit shelves in December
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Check out an excerpt from this upcoming murder mystery, “Nine Liars,” by Maureen Johnson. Photo: Shuttertsock

With her teen super-sleuth Stevie Bell, author Maureen Johnson is taking readers back to the time of the Spice Girls with a new murder mystery.

The young adult trilogy Truly Devious introduced Stevie as a detective solving an infamous 1930s cold case at her prestigious private school, and last year’s stand-alone adventure The Box in the Woods found her seeking clues to a sleep-away camp mystery from the 1970s. Johnson’s next book, a whodunit called Nine Liars (Katherine Tegen Books, out Dec. 27), features Stevie tackling a 1990s English murder mansion party that ended in bloody fashion.

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Johnson describes herself as “a murder mystery, detective-obsessed kid” whose first novel was a children’s’ version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

“And from the first moments, I was hooked,” she says. “When Sherlock saw Watson’s reflection in the teapot, that was it for me. Then I got to Baskerville Hall. From there on out, I was chasing detectives and trying to find more English murder mansions to visit.”

In Nine Liars, Stevie again takes on the role of a modern Sherlock. She and her pals Janelle, Vi and Nate are back at Ellingham Academy for their senior year, though Stevie’s missing her boyfriend David, currently studying abroad in Britain. He sets up a 10-day remote-study visit for them, and that’s when Stevie finds out about what happened in 1995 when nine recent Cambridge graduates – all members of a theatrical sketch group, The Nine – had a summer shindig at a grand estate called Merryweather. Two of them never returned from a game of hide-and-seek on the sprawling grounds and the next morning were discovered dead in the woodshed, murdered with an axe.

Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Photo: Shutterstock

“For once, Stevie does not want to be bothered,” Johnson says. “The story is somewhat interesting, but she’s heard from too many people who think they know someone who committed a murder.” But when one of the “Liars” disappears right after speaking to Stevie, “things take a turn. The next week will take Stevie all round London, meeting The Nine – and eventually to Merryweather itself.”

The following excerpt takes place after Stevie is introduced to Izzy, a friend of David’s whose aunt Angela was involved in the ‘95 case. Recently, Angela took some painkillers and started talking to Izzy, suggesting there’s much more that what was reported.

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Check out this excerpt from Chapter 5 of Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson:

The sure-fire way to get someone to tell you something you want to know isn’t to ask them about it. What you do is start telling the story yourself, say what you think happened, and say it wrong. People may not want to discuss things, but they will correct you, every time.

“I think I read about this,” Stevie said.

“You did?” Angela said. “It didn’t turn up much in the news. I doubt you’ve heard about it.”

“Something about a game? Hide-and-seek? And someone drowned?”

This was intolerable, both to the friend and the professional historian. She couldn’t sit there and let this wrongness go on. She got up and went up the steps.

“Uh oh,” Vi said.

But this was not a dramatic flourish. Angela returned half a minute later with a small, framed item, which she passed to Stevie. It was a small poster, hand-lettered, photocopied on mustard-coloured paper:





There was a photo on the page – obviously a print photo that had been photocopied, so it was in black and white and not very sharp. Still, Stevie could make out clearly enough that these were nine people who wanted you to know this was comedy. They each wore a costume, but none that related to any of the others. There was a tall woman in a dirty formal dress. One was wearing a top hat. One of the guys was wearing nothing at all and had a bingo-ball turner strategically placed over his groin.

“What happened was this,” Angela said. “When I was at Cambridge, I was in a theatrical group. There were nine of us. We met during fresher’s week and at some auditions in our first year, and we all became friends. We wrote and performed shows together.”

“The Nine?” Stevie asked.

“That was what we were called,” Angela said. “Despite how this looks, we weren’t bad. We weren’t Footlights or anything like that, but we had a good following. We went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival twice and did well. Sooz …”

She pointed to a tall woman dressed in the tattered evening gown.

“ … is an actress. She does quite a lot of Shakespeare, occasional television. She’s always working. She’s an amazing impressionist. And Yash and Peter …”

She pointed at the guy wearing nothing and holding up the bingo balls, along with the guy in the cowboy outfit.

“That’s Peter, the naked one. And that’s Yash in the hat. They’re a writing team, and they work on loads of shows – comedy panel shows, sitcoms, all kinds of things. In fact, Peter and Yash just won an award for their latest show the other week. They’re always doing that. So at least three of us ended up performing. And I do some television work, so that’s four, I suppose. Anyway, we got a house together in our third year, all nine of us. We were each other’s entire lives, really. Sebastian’s family had a big house in the country called Merryweather. We would go there sometimes, after term. Our final year, after exams, Sebastian invited us there for a graduation party week. His family had gone away to their other house in Greece so the house was all ours. On the night we arrived, we were playing a game – a group hide-and-seek. We played it all the time. One person would start as the seeker, and as each person was found, they’d join the seeker team until only one person was left. We played until the early morning hours, but we went inside after the storm became too intense. Two of my friends – Rosie and Noel … we didn’t realise they were missing at first. We assumed they were … that they wanted time to themselves. In the morning, we found them in the woodshed. They’d disturbed burglars in the night, or the burglars disturbed them. Either way, they were killed, with a wood axe from the shed. They never found who did it. That is the story.”

“But what about the lock?” Izzy said.

Angela didn’t exactly scream or throw a plate across the room, but the word “lock” had a chilling effect on her. She cocked her head to the side. For a moment, she made no reply, before coughing out a “what?”

“The lock,” Izzy repeated. “Your friends were found in a woodshed that was supposed to be locked. You told me; you said the lock was off the door in the night.”

The colour was draining from Angela’s face.

“When did I ever say that?”

“When I was staying with you after you had that surgery on your knee, earlier this year.”

The mood in the room changed completely.

“There’s nothing about a lock,” Angela replied, in a way that made it clear that there was definitely something going on with the lock.

“You said something about planted evidence, and that …”

Angela was no longer trying to disguise her discomfort.

“It was strong medication, Izzy.”

“You said you thought one of your friends was a murderer. I know this is terrible for you, but it was real. I could see it was real. Stevie can help. She’s done this before.”

Doorknob worked the ankles of the assembled as an awkward silence fell over the group. That had effectively cut the conversation off. There would be no more talk of murder.

“I hate to be rude,” Angela said, “but I have an early call in the morning and more work to finish up tonight.”

That night, as she flopped on her bed in the student housing and listened to the squeak of the plastic against the frame, Stevie looked at the corona of light coming from the streetlamp outside and replayed the conversation with Angela in her head.

There’s nothing about a lock. It was strong medication, Izzy.

Angela was lying to them. Why? Why bother lying when she could have been dismissive, said something like, “Who even knows? It doesn’t matter.” Why say there’s nothing about a lock when everything about your voice and body says there was something about a lock, and the lock was important?

As she winked out of consciousness, Stevie caught the tail end of a realisation. She knew the emotion she’d seen playing over Angela’s features as she’d been telling her story. It wasn’t sadness about what had happened, or annoyance that she was being prodded to tell a traumatic story to a bunch of strange teenagers in her house.

It was fear.

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