Review: Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

About the Book:

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.

Review by Katy Haye:

Truly Devious hits a lot of the tropes for a classic murder mystery: a rich man, an isolated house, a missing child, an unsolved mystery.

I loved the double-mystery element: on top of the cold case our heroine is determined to solve, I was busy looking out for the event that would mark the return of the old killer (or is it an entirely new killer?).

Our would-be sleuth Stevie is a fabulous character, gloriously self-aware and self-deprecating with a delightful, dry wit. The writing overall is very strong and I was carried effortlessly into Stevie’s world while the pages turned themselves.

You might have noticed, however, that I haven’t given Truly Devious a star rating, and that’s because I truly can’t decide how I feel about it. The saying goes that the start and end of your books are the most important – the start draws in a reader, while the ending decides whether the reader will want more from you.

I was drawn in easily enough, but I’m not sure I want any more. I was aware this is the first book in a trilogy and there are more to come, but it just felt utterly unfinished, to the extent that I closed the book feeling cheated. We don’t find out who committed the old crime, nor the new one. It ends on a twist (which I guess might answer one of those questions – or might just be a red herring), but the twist wasn’t powerful enough to constitute a cliff-hanger to drive me straight on to the next in the trilogy. It felt as though the overall story had just been hacked into three volumes because it would be too long, otherwise.

I finished reading a bit irritated and not particularly bothered, which I’m guessing isn’t the mood Maureen Johnson wanted to leave her readers in.

There’s much to love, if murder mysteries are your thing. I think I’m going to take this as my cue to move back to the fantasy books that are my go-to genre.

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