10:00 am EST, January 22, 2019

‘The Vanishing Stair’ review: All killer, no filler

"Where do you look for someone who's never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair."

The Vanishing Stair, Maureen Johnson’s second novel in her addicting Truly Devious series, is finally here and *spoiler alert* it’s fantastic.

But, I mean, you probably already knew that because 1. It’s Maureen Johnson and 2. There was no way that this novel could’ve ever been a disappointment. Not with all of its drama and intrigue.

The second installments of trilogies are often times my absolute favorites of the series (see Catching Fire and The Winter Soldier), but only when they’re done well. And The Vanishing Stair is done very, very well.

This sequel picks up almost immediately after where Truly Devious left off, give or take a few weeks. Still reeling from the events on the Ellingham campus and forced into a sort of exile (thanks to her parents), Stevie is still secretly working on the unsolved 1930s Ellingham murder case. That is, until one of the most powerful and dangerous people in the country (who also happens to be her former flame David’s dad) whisks her away from home and back to school, all in exchange for keeping an eye on his son.

Soon, Stevie is thrown back into campus life for better and worse: Better because she has resources available to her once more and a sort of internship that’s right up her alley, but worse because she’s haunted by the fact that her fellow classmate Ellie still hasn’t been found and her other fellow classmate Hayes’ murder has yet to be solved. This all on top of trying to help David while also keeping a terrible secret from him. You know, typical teen shenanigans.

But, while neither of the cases Stevie is working on appear to be making progress and she’s still far from figuring out whodunnit, there seem to be unseen and intangible forces working just below the surface that are heightening the danger around Stevie and increasing the pressure on her to solve both mysteries.

I honestly can’t say this enough: The Vanishing Stair is all killer, no filler. Or, well, partial killer, but definitely no filler. This book moves along at such a natural but brisk clip that I didn’t realize I had read an entire novel’s worth of story until I flipped to the author’s acknowledgements. I was just so engaged with everything going on and trying to untangle all of the strings that I lost track of time, both in real life and in the world of the book.

And when I say “partial killer,” I’m pleased to report that The Vanishing Stair *does* reveal one of the killers from one of the cases that Stevie has devoted herself to. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say which case or how the reveal comes about, but I will say that while it’s incredibly satisfying and expertly handled, it raises more questions than it answers. (But in the best way possible).

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One thing I was nervous about going into this second installment was the fact that it has been almost a full year since I read Truly Devious. I was worried about all of the small details I’ve forgotten since last year and that I’d be at a disadvantage when trying to solve the mysteries alongside Stevie.

But I should’ve known that I needn’t have worried. After all, most readers don’t re-read books in anticipation of sequels (because who has the time?!) and it’s the author’s job to sum up what happened previously.

Maureen Johnson goes above and beyond in this regard. She skillfully starts her sequel with touching on small but important details from the first novel while also moving this installment forward. Though the details she throws in are substantial and enough to jog the memory, they’re not so large and time-consuming where it feels like an arduous rehash of what came before.

Speaking of skill, Johnson’s storytelling has never been more masterful than it is in The Vanishing Stair. She expertly juggles two timelines, multiple perspectives, multiple deaths, AND all of their associated secrets. There’s never a moment where, as a reader, you’re unsure of what you’re reading, where you are, or why what you’re reading may be important.

And you know what? Reading The Vanishing Stair is just plain fun.

The Vanishing Stair

It’s honestly impossible to go through this novel and not have your Spidey senses tingle alongside Stevie’s, sometimes even moments before hers do. While other mystery novels generally leave out pertinent information, making it impossible for the reader to try to outsmart the detective and solve the mystery, Johnson reveals all of the information we need to figure out whodunnit. In The Vanishing Stair, all of the clues are out in the open and it is Stevie’s journey that serves as the red murder board yarn that connects them all and paints the picture of what happened.

Though the mysteries (and murders) are the series’ main focus, quieter moments between characters are no less engaging. Perhaps that’s because this novel focuses on Stevie’s relationships with people outside of her immediate group of friends, both new and old. For instance, there are quite a few lovely scenes between Stevie and Ellingham’s head of security, Larry. Though they were often thrown together in the first novel, their relationship in this one takes on a wonderful warmth. I didn’t know I needed more scenes with the two of them together until I got them here.

Stevie also spends quite a bit of time with the handful of new characters introduced in this novel. Each of the new faces are enigmas in their own right. So much so that I’m still trying to figure out how they’re all connected and what part they play in the larger story. One character, a fellow student with a raging Walt Disney World obsession, really threw me for a loop. After reading through all of their interactions with Stevie in The Vanishing Stair, I’m so curious to see how all of their stories play out in the final novel.

That’s not to say, however, that Stevie’s main crew isn’t featured here in this book. In fact, we get quite a few heartfelt scenes with Nate, some fun shenanigans with Janelle, and a handful of heart-pounding moments with David. But considering how large a part they played in the previous novel (David especially), I was surprised at how little they featured in The Vanishing Stair. That being said, however, the little time we *do* spend with them is substantial and mostly satisfying (although the romantic in me was desperate for a little more quality time with David).

Readers who enjoyed Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious will love The Vanishing Stair. While this novel does set up what should be a pretty epic conclusion, it isn’t dependent on the forthcoming finale for tension as it’s an incredibly addicting novel in its own right. It’s expertly paced and reveals just the right amount of information to satisfy the reader’s craving for answers while also keeping us curious for more. The Vanishing Stair is the perfect second novel in this entertaining and gloriously unpredictable series.

The Vanishing Stair

‘The Vanishing Stair’ by Maureen Johnson is available now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!

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