“Schools may be famous for many things: academics, graduates, sports teams.
They are not supposed to be famous for murder.”
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.
Let’s kick this blog off right with me raving about Maureen Johnson’s truly wonderful Truly Devious. It’s fun! It’s clever! It’s got riddles (think you know what’s always on a staircase but never on a stair? we should talk)!
And dang if I don’t have a soft spot for fun, clever, and riddle-packed. But really, it was the atmosphere that sold me. When Stevie Bell rolled up her new super exclusive mysterious boarding school campus, I fell in love. You can’t just hand me a quirky mansion with a mystery and expect me not to get excited. And the fact that it’s a murder mystery? An unsolved one from nearly a century ago? Man, it’s like this book was made for me. There’s an eccentric air to every part of the setting, and once the plot really gets rolling, there’s an underlying urgency that keeps you glued to the page.
And don’t even get me started on the flashbacks. Normally, they make me awful wary, but in Truly Devious, they’re excellent, allowing the past and present mysteries to unfold side by side. Even better, they’re not always plain prose. Some of the glimpses back into the original Ellingham mystery are unveiled in the form of interview transcripts, which heightened the sense that the crime from way back one really was unsolvable, suspicious and truly baffling. Naturally, that only makes me want Stevie to knock this cold case out of the park even more than I wanted it before.
On the whole, my complaints are few. To me, the plot’s only fault is that this is the first of a trilogy, and so not all of the pieces have been provided, let alone fallen into place, ready to be solved. And as someone who loves trying to puzzle mysteries out, I felt a little cheated by the sense that there was information being withheld. A good mystery gives the readers all the tools to solve it, even if they can’t recognize those tools on their first read. Maybe that’s the case here and I don’t know it. But I get the sense there’s still more missing.
“Now, Meaghan, you’ve raved about this book almost nonstop! Why 3.5 stars?” you might say. And the answer is that I was frustrated by the characters. Oh, Stevie I adored. I understand being the liberal child of conservative parents. I understand loving mysteries. I understand the unease of not fitting in. Stevie is wonderful. What (or who, really) I disliked was David. I’m tired of the antagonistic boy becoming the love interest even the MC doesn’t understand loving. I was also disappointed in the way Janelle was overlooked. Stevie spends most of her time with Nate even though it’s established early on that Nate barely communicates, while Stevie and Janelle get along swimmingly even before arriving on the Ellingham campus. It really rubbed me the wrong way, knowing that Janelle is a WOC and a lesbian, to see her shifted to a smaller supporting role after the initial hype. I expected her to feature much more actively in the plot, and I got David and Nate filling that space instead.
An aside: I actually did like Nate’s subtle growth into a more friendly person. And his ability to procrastinate one thing by diving back into another. Same, pal. Same.
Additionally, I was unhappy with how Vi was handled. There is a scene were Stevie refers to Vi with she/her pronouns, and Janelle corrects her: Vi uses they/them. And yet they’re referred to only with she/her for the rest of the book. That was particularly disheartening, and I hope if Johnson features them more prominently in The Vanishing Stair, Truly Devious‘s sequel, she does so with the right pronouns. Consistently.
Overall, despite its character flaws and the way it opens mysteries without fully resolving any of them, Truly Devious was a delightful, engaging read that I fully intend on keeping on my shelf, and probably on revisiting when its sequel arrives.
Besides, I can’t just let these riddles go unsolved. I just can’t do it. I have to know!
Do you also have to know what these riddles amount to? Do you have thoughts and ideas and hunches on where this is headed? Do you have strong feelings all around? Oh man, please share what you think of Truly Devious. It’s so worth talking about.