10:00 am EST, January 16, 2018

‘Truly Devious’ book review: Maureen Johnson’s modern mystery delivers

In Truly Devious, Maureen Johnson crafts a mystery driven by its strong characters and a setting that makes you feel at home and on edge all at once.

About ‘Truly Devious’ by Maureen Johnson

Stevie is thrilled at the chance to attend Ellingham Academy, an elite boarding school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. She’ll finally be free of her ultra-conservative parents, who are more concerned with her looks and dating life than whether she’s challenged academically. Stevie is a true crime aficionado with an inquisitive mind and an insatiable curiosity, and she’s determined to make her mark among her brilliant and talented classmates by solving an 81-year-old cold case involving her new school.

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Ellingham was founded in 1936 by a 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 ominous pseudonym, Truly, Devious. It became one of the greatest unsolved crimes in history. Stevie sifts through fragments of clues from the past, while at the same time trying to manage her demanding new school life and get along with her eccentric housemates: an inventor, a novelist, an actor, an artist, and a jokester. Shockingly, history repeats itself: Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy.

Riddles, cryptic messages, and puzzles abound to make Truly Devious an absorbing and thrilling whodunit fit for all ages. A cliffhanger of an ending leaves readers breathless in anticipation of the sequel, with many more twists and turns to come over the three books in the series.

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truly devious maureen johnson

‘Truly Devious’ book review

It’s been almost three years since I’ve held a new Maureen Johnson book in my hands. I tore through this book faster than I have read a book in years. I could not be more thrilled with Truly Devious. It highlights everything Maureen Johnson does best: strong characters, a little whimsy, and just enough familiar pieces to make you feel at home in the story. Best of all, it has enough mysteries and clues to keep you guessing all the way through.

Truly Devious tells its story in two interweaving timelines, one that follows the original mystery of 1936 and one that follows the school — and its new mysteries — in present day. Telling the story that way allows the tension to slowly but steadily build throughout the book. The flashback scenes are reminiscent of classic detective novels, while the present day story line is fresh and exciting in other ways.

Though it’s hard to pick a favorite, the characters were a highlight of this novel. They are all unique and distinct. I felt like I’d been friends with Stevie for years when I first met her. That kind of impression from a main character makes the rest of the book feel instantly personal and accessible. Stevie entered Ellingham Academy because she wanted to solve the school’s famous murder mystery. She’s not just an aspiring detective; she’s one already in the trenches, picking out clues and chasing after leads.

Her observational skills give full pictures of those around her. Her friend Nate was another favorite of mine. Nate is a writer, which I instantly connected with. He is also a loyal and sincere friend, which made me love him even more. There are many other delightful characters that populate Stevie’s world. Pix, the teacher and dorm supervisor; Larry, the head of security and ex-detective; as well as all of Stevie’s friends and classmates support the character of Stevie in ways that make the story come alive.

truly devious maureen johnson

The setting of Truly Devious is a captivating character of its own. Ellingham Academy, even with all its secrets, is a comfortable space for the story to occupy. Stevie lives in Minerva House at the academy. The warmness of the building — from the teacher sorting teeth to the large tub in a shared bathroom — make it a perfect foil to the cold mysteries of the rest of campus.

When Stevie enters the building for the first time, it reminded me of entering my first college apartment. The experience is new, but not unwelcoming. Johnson gives that sense to help us feel at home in the story, like we are there helping Stevie through it. It makes the book more immediate and the mystery more pressing.

The mystery, of course, is what made this book hard to put down. There are new riddles and details in every chapter. The secrets of Ellingham Academy unfurl themselves with prowess. They are helped along, of course, by Stevie and her friends. Maureen Johnson crafts a mystery worthy of the genre.

Just like all the other mystery elements, the book’s final scene is a reveal I did not see coming. It sets the stage for even more intrigue to come. You might as well add me to the Truly Devious body count because I’ll be holding my breath until the sequel is released and Stevie has a chance to solve even more of Ellingham Academy’s long kept secrets.

‘Truly Devious’ is available now

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