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.
The two interwoven mysteries of this first book in the Truly Devious series dovetail brilliantly, and Stevie Bell will continue her relentless quest for the murderers in books two and three.
I was in the mood for a murder mystery – so I turned to Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, a YA mystery about a true crime enthusiast and wannabe detective named Stevie who dreams of solving a famous kidnapping. But there are strange things afoot in the present day – a fellow student is murdered.
I read Truly Devious a few years ago, but picked it up again recently so I could read the trilogy all the way through. And I read all 3 books in a matter of days (book 3, in just one day!). In some ways, this is a review for the trilogy as a whole – but no spoilers, I promise! Any details I’ve shared pertain only to Book 1. 😉
There were so many things to love about these books:
I loved Stevie’s voice as the protagonist, and her friends and housemates are equally interesting and quirky – Janelle, Nate, David, and Ellie. Larry is another awesome character. Each of the students has a “thing,” which is not only an important part of character development in general, but just so happens to be the entire point of Ellingham Academy. “Special snowflakes” only.
I don’t know about you, but something that always bugs me is when a character is given a unique skillset or passion, and then we never learn anything about it. This book did not fall into that trap – Stevie is constantly thinking about true crime and unsolved cases, and makes frequent references to mystery novels and fictional detectives like Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. She’s an avid listener of the My Favorite Murder podcast. Stevie’s friends are similar – Janelle is always working with tools, either building machines or showcasing her mechanical prowess. Nate refers to his fantasy writing (his attempt to draft a sequel to his novel) and talks about dragons.
Unorthodox, Eccentric Private Academy
The school was built on a remote mountain, and founder Albert Ellingham was known for his appreciation for riddles and games. There are secret passageways, tunnels, Greek statue, a yurt, an “art barn,” and a drained lake. The tunnels play a huge role in the mystery.
And what do you think the faculty warns the students at the beginning of the semester?! Yep, you guessed it – DO NOT explore the secret passages. Well, it wouldn’t be a story if the students followed the rules. (Do they ever?! Cue the anxiety. I have always been a goody-two-shoes rule follower. The stakes, in that sense, feel higher for me. I’m reading and I’m like, why?! WHY?! Please, whatever you do, don’t go into the creepy tunnel.)
TWO Interwoven Mysteries / Alternating Perspectives
There’s the Ellingham kidnapping of 1936 (this is the cold case Stevie is obsessed with), and the present-day murder(s). What’s really special about these books is that they flip between the past and the present. We get third-person scenes from the 1930s, and a peek into the lives of the characters who were involved in that time period (the Ellingham family, the student who was murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the secretary, the cop / family bodyguard, the eccentric painter). This was really fun for me, because as readers we have a pretty solid idea of the goings-on, and have the opportunity to begin piecing it together for ourselves – at the same time that present-day Stevie is investigating the case and discovering clues that shed more light on the mystery.
You might think that these scenes would pull us out of the present-day story or slow the pace of the novel, but I felt it did the opposite. I lived for these scenes – just bite-sized pieces to fuel my intrigue. And I’d find myself back with Stevie and her friends in no time. And, in the spirit of a true murder mystery, there are even excerpts from articles and FBI interviews.
True crime! Mysteries! Murder!
Yes, there’s a note written with magazine-clipped serial killer letters. Yes, there’s a murder wall. Yes, there are plenty of red herrings.
I feel like it’s not a huge spoiler to say that the events are connected. It was really, really fun for me to begin drawing those connections and making predictions about motive, etc. In true Agatha Christie fashion, Stevie calls all the players into a room together at the end to walk everyone through the crime and her deductions. So that was awesome. There were plenty of twists and turns along the way. It was not completely predictable, which was refreshing. There were elements that I guessed, but it wasn’t disappointing for me because I was too excited to find out how it all pieced together.
Also, I’d like to acknowledge what an impressive feat it is to split a mystery across three books. Each book sums up a piece of the mystery – so there’s a sense of closure at the end of each novel, but books 1 and 2 (Truly Devious, The Hand on the Wall) end in cliffhangers that leave you wanting more. And while it’s the same overarching mystery across all 3 books, I thought Maureen Johnson did an awesome job introducing new facets of the case in each book. She introduces new characters and new clues in the second and third books, as well.
As a huge fan of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, I appreciated the way Johnson showed homage to some of the greatest murder mystery writers and detectives in her story. In all – solid mystery! Great characters. A really fun read. If you’re into true crime and murder mysteries, this is totally for you.