Review: Truly Devious
Truly Devious, Maureen Johnson
Published January 16, 2018, HarperCollins
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.
I love a good mystery, books that take place in special schools, and well crafted writing, so color me excited when this book delivered all three!
Stevie is a wonderful main character, real and extraordinary all at the same time. She battles anxiety, prefers comfortable black clothes, hates racism and bigotry, and she’s a true crime buff who would love to be a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Solving mysteries is actually Stevie’s best coping mechanism for when anxiety strikes, allowing her to focus on something that can be fixed. At least until it’s one of her classmates that winds up dead and suddenly death doesn’t feel like just some abstract thing to be solved.
The book is presented primarily in the “present day” of Stevie’s school experience, with the occasional chapter that details what was happening in 1936, they year of the kidnappings, as well as the occasional transcript and internet article to tease out more of the background of the story. It becomes quickly apparent that everyone involved in the Ellingham kidnapping case is hiding something, and I genuinely look forward to Stevie discovering both what happened then, and what exactly is happening on the campus now.
Stevie is clever but occasionally hampered by some social awkwardness, something that is relatable for so many readers. The rest of the cast of characters delivers some truly interesting people, with a nice sense of reality thrown in, like when Nate, the writer, points out that one colorfully dramatic and manic girl has a case of trying to hard. Johnson knows that manic pixie dream girl is a trope, and she knows that there are some people who still try to emulate that image.
Johnson writes this young students with heart and grace and an awareness of the uniquely complicated feelings that come with being a teenager, especially one with great aspirations.
And she writes with a kind of simple clarity that I love, painting vivid pictures with just a few sentences. “Dottie had never seen anyone with a suntan in March before. This, more than anything was the most powerful sign of Mr. Ellingham’s wealth. He could have the sun itself.”
The book ends with very little of the mystery resolved and even drops one last tiny bombshell before the story is finished. But, in this case, I welcomed the cliffhanger as I’m eagerly looking forward to spending more time in Stevie’s world and exploring Ellingham Academy. The publishers have confirmed that there will be two more books in the series.