Devious is just the start, or my review of Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson


Truly Devious (Truly Devious #1)

By: Maureen Johnson

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date: January 16th, 2018

Format: Hardcover

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym, Truly Devious. It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.


Remember how just last week I was talking about That Time That the Librarian I Knew Coaxed Me Into Getting All of the Books? Well, guess what other book I got! Honestly, this person has great taste, and I’ll definitely be allowing her to coax me into getting more books. And yes, there was definitely a theme of teen murder mysteries.

The book is set at the Ellingham Academy, a place where crime-obsessed Stevie Bell feels almost drawn. The Academy was the site of one of the most mysterious unsolved crimes of the 20th century: the disappearance of the wife and daughter of the founder, with no clues but a note signed ‘Truly, Devious’. Stevie isn’t just hoping to get an education: her goal is to solve the mystery. But, when one of her housemates winds up dead, she has another, much more immediate, crime to solve.

In contrast to One of Us is Lying, Truly Devious felt much less…current, I guess, and much more like I was going to round the corner and find Miss Marple or Phryne Fisher snooping around. Part of that was the setting: rural Vermont, mysterious mansion full of wacky people, etc. It also was helped along scenically by the insertions of evidence and transcripts from 1936, when Alice and Iris Ellingham went missing. The whodunit felt less urgent, I guess, and the pace was less up-and-down. It felt like the mysteries I would read as a kid–Sherlock, Agatha Christie–where things were happening in due time. There was also a lot of very calm, teenage stuff–like Stevie getting worried that her friend was going to start ignoring her because she found a partner–that evened out the tension of the murders.

But of course this is also a quirky, strange, very odd book, as should be expected from Maureen Johnson. I enjoyed the cast of characters the most–Stevie, as well as all of her new friends, from Ellie to Janelle to Nate. I enjoyed how easily and naturally Johnson wrote about characters who were queer, POC, neuroatypical, and how that it was clear that Ellingham allowed all of them to be their most authentic selves. I also loved their interactions and how tolerant they were of each other, while also encouraging each other to be their best selves–for instance, Stevie and Janelle gently pulling Nate out of his hermit hole and going with him to social events.

I also liked the realism in that, although Stevie was an inevitable part of the murder investigation (seeing as she found the body), the adults around her tried to keep her obsession with it in check, without necessarily giving her a blanket ban. Instead, her mentor figure specifically offered coping mechanisms as well as advice from his time as a cop about how to deal with the event in an appropriate manner. But, of course, that doesn’t stop Stevie from solving the mystery, figuring out the motive and confronting the murderer.

Overall, this was a delightful book about atypical teens being awesome, a murder mystery both old and new (I don’t know how they connect yet, but I’m sure we’ll get there), and overall, a great book that was suspenseful without edge-of-the-seat tension. I’ve already put a hold on book 2, the Vanishing Stair, and I’ll report back if it’s as delightful as this one.

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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.

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