Truly Devious by Maureen Johnston
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication date: 18 April 2018
Genre: YA crime
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review
It has been hard to escape the hype for Truly Devious, a book that has taken the YA book world by storm, and I was totally taken in by it. I try to not let hype dictate my reading choices — I so often end up disappointed — but I was just so curious about this book. I had never read YA crime before, knew that it was the first in a trilogy, and knew that the author is a true crime fan — that was all. I had one false start with this book because I couldn’t get past the main character, however I ended up giving it a try on audiobook and absolutely devoured it.
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.
This book is a funny one for a number of reasons. It breaks what I think of as the tradition of crime books by not resolving the crime by the end. The main character doesn’t stand out much — she fades into the background because the secondary characters are much more interesting. The romance is really lackluster. The book investigates two crimes — one historical and one current — at the same time, and one is much more interesting than the other. However, I still found it so incredibly compelling once I had the narrator’s voice in my ears.
The setting of Ellingham Academy is really interesting, and I loved the history of the school and the tragedy that took place there. I loved Stevie’s investigations into the school’s past and the clues Johnson drops into the story. But I just didn’t have the same attachment to the modern storyline as I did the historic one for some reason. I think the thing that grabbed me most was this mysterious crime that has remained unsolved for decades — this is exactly when draws people into the world of true crime and Johnson did a great job of recreating that sense of morbid curiosity.
While there are fun characters in this book — Janelle has stolen my heart and I want to be her friend in real life — I do think that Stevie is one of the weaker parts of the book. In theory, I should love her. I’m about 90% sure she’s autistic, she’s super passionate about criminal justice and solving the Ellingham case, and she’s snarky and sarcastic. However, there was something about her that just didn’t leap of the page to me. She felt almost like a bystander in her own story, if you know what I mean. I hope she gets a little more developed further down the line, but this issue honestly could just be down to personal taste.
Overall, Truly Devious is a fun and addicting mystery. I listened to the audiobook in record time and let me tell you, my flat has never been so clean. I usually don’t read sequels until I’ve reviewed the first book, but I broke my rule in this instance and have already devoured The Vanishing Stair. Now that I’ve read them both, I can confidently say that some of the issues I had in this first book and well on their way to being resolved later in the series. I am super curious to see how this series ends in 2020.
Want to buy Truly Devious? You can pick it up at the following sites (affiliate links):