10:00 am EST, January 21, 2020

‘The Hand on the Wall’ book review: All’s well that ends well (even murder)

The Hand on the Wall, the third and final book in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, brings everything full circle.

Picking off almost precisely where The Vanishing Stair left off, The Hand on the Wall wastes no time in exploring all of the revelations and events of the previous novel.

Our heroine and spunky teenage sleuth, Stevie Bell, is reeling from two major losses: her eccentric mentor who died in a tragic house fire and her close friend/potential love interest David, who she last saw running away from a self-inflicted beat down.

On top of that, she solved the infamous Ellingham case. The one that brought her to Ellingham Academy in the first place. The one that has consumed her mind and demanded her attention for as long as she can remember. The only issue is that she has no proof to back up her accusation.

But as the semester rolls on and strange things continue to happen on campus, Stevie is forced to face her losses as well as the unknown entities in both cases she’s trying to solve before time runs out.

The Hand on the Wall has been one of my most anticipated books of 2020. I’ve loved both previous installments of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series (with “love” being an understatement in reference to my feelings about The Vanishing Stair) and I couldn’t wait to find out how everything wraps up. Plus, the series’ characters, setting, and just overall atmosphere of reality with a touch of whimsy (and murder, of course) have really stuck with me.

If Truly Devious was the “What” in terms of setting up and exploring all of the known edges of the classic Ellingham case, The Vanishing Stair is very much the “Who” and The Hand on the Wall is unequivocally the “What.”

The end of The Vanishing Stair exposed the 1936 murderer/kidnapper as well as his grisly fate. (Being blown up on a boat is not an ending I’d wish upon anyone, but maybe that’s just me.) That was HUGE. And so, rather than retconning or adding an extra twist to Stevie’s Whodunnit theory at the end of the previous novel, this installment digs deep into it and works to fit all of the pieces together around her educated gut hunch.

The “How” here is really fascinating in that it’s not made up of a series of spectacles or is even a spectacle in itself. Like the project Janelle works on throughout the course of the novel, the murders are the events that are kicked off by a very long and winding Rube Goldberg machine. Small details, slights, and forgotten pieces end up being pivotal keys to figuring out exactly what happened all those years ago. Maureen Johnson does her best work when she strings together normal occurrences and omissions, creating a tapestry of moving parts whose larger picture can only be seen from afar (namely, Stevie’s brain).

While the revelation of the “Hows” in the classic case aren’t as shocking as the “Who,” they’re delightfully (or, well, as much as murder can be) unexpected and intricate. The “Hows” even weave in details and characters previously debunked as being a part of the kidnapping and murder plot. In fact, there are a couple of important clues revealed and explored in this book that made me sit back and say “Ohhhh, that’s interesting.” Many times I can guess how certain details fit together, but the ones introduced here are not details previously mentioned, but rather details hiding just below the surface of other details. They don’t feel like they’ve come out of nowhere, but they weren’t previously forced into the spotlight.

Which brings me to another thing I really enjoy about this series: The fact that we’re privy to everything Stevie experiences and learns. In fact, because we have direct access to conversations and events from the past, we’re many times even more knowledgeable about the Ellingham case than Stevie.

But we as readers are never at a disadvantage in terms of discovering pertinent facets of the case. Though it has taken about three years for the Truly Devious series to come out in its entirety, only a handful of months have passed in the time of the story, all of which are thoroughly recorded on the books’ pages. We haven’t missed out on anything, important or otherwise, which, to me, is crucial when I’m reading mysteries as I want the ability to solve the case ahead of, or alongside, the detective. If I’m to be surprised by twists and revelations in mysteries, I don’t want it to be because I have a lesser view of the puzzle than those in the book.

I also love the tight, uninterrupted timeline because it allows us as much time with our favorite characters as possible. The Hand on the Wall takes that series standard to another level in that, in contrast with the previous two books, it keeps those characters together in larger groups for longer and more frequent periods of time. In fact, Stevie is very rarely by herself in this installment. She may not be inviting her friends into the recesses of her mind and the minutiae of her conclusion, but she’s no longer pulling away.

All of the teens are more supportive and interconnected than ever. Each uses their special skills and knowledge to help Stevie solve the mysteries before them. Nate is especially wonderful in this book even though his main purpose is moral support and empathy. But his shyness makes his softness and moments of comfort that much more impactful.

My only real complaint about The Hand on the Wall is aimed toward the current Ellingham situation.

In addition to wrapping up the 1936 case, The Hand on the Wall also has the task of doing the “Who” and “How” heavylifting for the modern day murders and mysterious occurrences. However, it’s all very much framed in terms of the 1936 triple homicide and kidnapping.

This is where I think the series is the weakest. The 1936 Ellingham case is so shrouded in mystery, intrigue, and lush decadence that the modern case just can’t compare. Murder is terrible regardless of decade and circumstance, but the showmanship and spectacle surrounding the long-unsolved mystery overshadows and even kind of belittles the murders of Stevie’s classmates and mentor.

There’s a lot of overlap, actually, in the way that the two cases play out here, including the lack of drama and extravagance in the “Hows.” But so many elements of the 1936 situation overshadow and overwhelm those of 21st century’s, making those “normal” catalysts boring rather than unexpected marvels.

I’d also go so far as to say that the modern mystery’s pace (what with it not dropping groundbreaking revelations in each book like the Ellingham case) works against it as well. The classic case’s exposure of the culprit in the second novel takes the wind out of the present day murders and sets it up to be less interesting. But it’s a catch-22 in that, if the present murders were to have had something major revealed alongside the classic case, this third book may not have even happened (because of reasons related to keeping all of the characters together).

That all being said, the conclusions to each mystery are incredibly rewarding. Though it’s always difficult to say goodbye to characters and situations in books that we readers have come to know, love, and deeply identify with, all loose ends get tied up pretty nicely in this final novel. Sure, there’s always room for more, and I’d definitely pick up another novel by Maureen Johnson that features these characters, but I don’t need it. The Hand on the Wall makes sure of that in the best way possible.

Fans of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series will not be disappointed by The Hand on the Wall. The perfect mix of intimate character moments, intriguing epiphanies, and dangerous situations make it an overwhelmingly satisfying conclusion. I’m sad to say goodbye to this series, but excited to see what Maureen Johnson dreams up next.

The Hand on the Wall (Truly Devious #3) by Maureen Johnson is available now. Be sure to order your copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” shelf!

The Hand on the Wall (Truly Devious #3) by Maureen Johnson

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