Like many people, I went into a bit of a reading slump with the start of an online school year. Truly Devious, by Maureen Johnson will rocket you out of it. I just finished the book and I’m going to get the sequel today. Before I get into my opinions on the book – a brief summary:
Ellingham Academy is an infamous school in the mountains of Vermont. It was founded in the early twentieth century by the eccentric finance mogul, Albert Ellingham. He believed that learning was a game, and brought the brightest students in the US to join him in his life of riddles and logic.
This fascinating setting becomes a crime scene in 1936, when Ellingham’s wife and daughter are kidnapped in a meticulously planned crime announced by a mysterious poem signed “Truly, Devious” just a few days prior. The crime becomes one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in American History.
Then, the story enters the modern-day. In steps Stephanie “Stevie” Bell, a true crime aficionado and student at Ellingham academy. She is admitted with the goal of solving the cold case. We are then introduced to an equally fascinating cast of characters, including an internet star, an eccentric artist, an introverted author, a friendly engineer, and a mysteriously dilapidated coder. A tragic accident happens to one of the students at Ellingham Academy, and Stevie thrusts herself into the detective life she has always wanted. As the incident seems to be less and less of an “accident”, we see each character react to the tragedy.
One of my favorite parts of this story is the constant shift between 1936 and the modern-day. Johnson uses transcripts, evidence, and narrative to slowly unfurl the story of the past. In many ways, this method parallels Stevie’s thoughts, entrenching the reader in both the mysteries and the character. We are given the perfect amount of information, leaving us curious and constantly engaged.
Truly Devious goes beyond the surface level plot. None of these characters are a waste of words. They all contribute so much to the story. My personal favorite is Janelle, who is a queer woman in STEM. That alone is enough to pull me in. Beyond that, she is a great friend to Stevie, and just a pleasure to read about. I find myself wishing I had a Janelle in real life. Stevie’s other close friend is Nate, who wrote a wildly successful novel. He is extraordinarily introverted, but a great character and friend when it comes down to it. Stevie is also a well-developed character. Johnson could easily have ignored the characters and created a plot with some two-dimensional pawns, but I’m so glad she didn’t. As someone with anxiety, I can relate a lot to Stevie, who also struggles. Johnson paints this picture beautifully, without being insensitive or over the top with her depiction of anxiety. Stevie is clearly extraordinary, yet remains relatable. She often doubts herself and her abilities. She is incredible but believable. I am often not a fan of romance in plot-driven novels, yet I think that Johnson does a good job of keeping it a side plot. It adds to Stevie’s character without taking away from the mystery, so no complaints here.
I believe Truly Devious has something for everyone, even if mysteries aren’t your favorite genre. However, if you are sensitive to depictions of anxiety or death, this is not your book. Otherwise, I strongly encourage you to pick up Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson. You will definitely want to pick up the next book when you get the first because you will NEED to know what happens.
Review by ~ Malena