Book Reviews

Truly Devious (Trilogy) by Maureen Johnson

A friend of mine in a work book club recommended Truly Devious to me many years ago when I was on the hunt for a new book series to read. There are so many in the world that it can get overwhelming. I finally put in the library hold and worked my way through the whole Truly Devious series.

As a note, it looks like there are five books in the series, but that’s not quite accurate. As I understand it, the first three books are a trilogy, and then there are two additional books with the same female main character, but they are treated as standalone novels.

Truly, Devious

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.

New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson weaves a delicate tale of murder and mystery in the first book of a striking new series, perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and E. Lockhart.

The Vanishing Stair

All Stevie Bell wanted was to find the key to the Ellingham mystery, but instead she found her classmate dead. And while she solved that murder, the crimes of the past are still waiting in the dark. Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel of the Truly Devious series, nothing is free, and someone will pay for the truth with their life.

The Hand on the Wall

Ellingham Academy must be cursed. Three people are now dead. One, a victim of either a prank gone wrong or a murder. Another, dead by misadventure. And now, an accident in Burlington has claimed another life. All three in the wrong place at the wrong time. All at the exact moment of Stevie’s greatest triumph . . .

She knows who Truly Devious is. She’s solved it. The greatest case of the century.

At least, she thinks she has. With this latest tragedy, it’s hard to concentrate on the past. Not only has someone died in town, but David disappeared of his own free will and is up to something. Stevie is sure that somehow—somehow—all these things connect. The three deaths in the present. The deaths in the past. The missing Alice Ellingham and the missing David Eastman. Somewhere in this place of riddles and puzzles there must be answers.

Then another accident occurs as a massive storm heads toward Vermont. This is too much for the parents and administrators. Ellingham Academy is evacuated. Obviously, it’s time for Stevie to do something stupid. It’s time to stay on the mountain and face the storm—and a murderer.

In the tantalizing finale to the Truly Devious trilogy, New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson expertly tangles her dual narrative threads and ignites an explosive end for all who’ve walked through Ellingham Academy.

My Thoughts

I gave each book (and the whole Truly Devious series) three stars. I am not mad that I read it, but it also didn’t blow me out of the water either. I will also say that this review only applies to the trilogy/first three books (as blurb’d above).

This is a young adult series. I recognize that. By that nature, the characters weren’t terribly developed. It makes sense. Also, I think I must have lived very different high school years, but that’s neither here nor there.

Stevie’s whole schtick and why she was admitted to Ellingham is that she’s a detective. She wants to solve the kidnapping case. Of course, there are all the other things going on that she has to solve too. (As a lover of puzzles, I definitely understood that desire.) However, there were so many references to the greats like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes that it made Stevie fall shorter as a character. It took three books for her to have that kind of “moment” (#iykyk).

I just felt like the series was too long maybe? The books themselves each made sense (mostly), but had lots of loose threads. Everything wrapped up at the end of The Hand on the Wall, but it felt like that was too late. I don’t know. I’m rambling at this point.

The Truly Devious series was not bad. If they’re available, and you’re looking for a series you’ll probably burn through very quickly, go for it. It was certainly nice and accessible.

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