Book Reviews, Young Adult

Review: Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

“You have to take things as they are, not how you hear they’re supposed to be.” 

Truly Devious (Truly Devious #1) by Maureen Johnson

Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Buy the book here
  • Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Fiction
  • Page Count: 448
  • Content Warnings: Violence, kidnapping, character death, panic attacks, usage of alcohol (underage) and drugs

I love a good mystery. I read a few Nancy Drew books as a kid, and in middle school I was pretty big fan of Sherlock. Mysteries enthrall me mostly because I am terrible at solving them. During an episode of Murder, She Wrote I always have the “aha!” moment at the exact same time as Jessica Fletcher. Seriously, I am almost always shocked at the outcome of a mystery novel, unless the answer is glaringly obvious.

I decided to give Truly Devious a shot because of how much I enjoyed the narrative in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, which also has a murder mystery premise with teenagers. I love the trope that I’ve fondly named “The Girl Detective Trope”. The Girl Detective Trope is when a teenage girl interested in crime swoops in and solves the case that all the older male professional law enforcement could not solve. She usually looks at the case from a more human and empathetic angle than had previously been explored and cracks it wide open through her tedious investigative skills. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than watching a seventeen year old girl solve a case that nobody else could crack.

And that’s exactly the case in Truly Devious. Hidden up in the mountains of Vermont is Ellingham Academy, an elite private school for unique minds, including artists, inventors, and writers. Founded by 1920s millionaire Albert Ellingham, the school was designed to make learning a game, and it only accepts 50 students each year on free tuition to attend.

But shortly after opening, the school’s reputation was marred by tragedy and mystery as Albert’s wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only clue to their disappearance was a riddle about methods of murder signed “Truly, Devious” sent to Ellingham’s home. The crime remained unsolved and was often considered the case of the century.

In present day, Stevie Bell is accepted into Ellingham Academy based on her serious interest in true crime and the Ellingham case. Stevie is thrilled for the opportunity to attend this unique school and hopefully have the chance to uncover more information about the cold case. But first she has to adjust to life at this new school—eccentric housemates, a heavy course load, and an unshakable self-doubt that her acceptance into this school of remarkable students was some sort of fluke.

And then Truly Devious returns, and death occurs at Ellingham Academy. Is Stevie read to take on a present day murder case? Is it possible that the past and present cases are connected?

I loved this book. It certainly earns a place on may list of five star reads. As YA fiction, I think it does a great job of blending Stevie’s personal life with her investigative endeavors.

There are several key players in this story, but I’ll primarily focus on the protagonist, Stevie. She’s smart, hungry for knowledge, and also anxious about her new life. This story is not just about murder. It is about finding your place, and growing confident in yourself to do so.

Stevie develops relationships with her fellow classmates living in the same dormitory as her. One particular relationship that sticks out is with David, the prickly and sarcastic second year student at Ellingham with a mysterious past. Stevie and David have a strange and complex plot in this book, and while personally at first I was not sold on their dynamic, I was thoroughly entertained by David’s bizarre antics and mysterious life.

There’s a minor subplot here (that becomes prevalent later in the trilogy) about Stevie’s parents working for a racist alt-right Pennsylvania Senator. And at first I thought oh no, because the horrors of our political landscape platforming violent nationalism, as well as racist and homophobic rhetoric in the real world is horrific enough, and I quite honestly wasn’t expecting to read about it in this novel.

But the reality of it is glaring. Unfortunate many young readers today that are reading YA face situations where there parents are anti-climate change, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, etc.,

Kids like protagonist Stevie are growing up in homes where parents are pushing Alt-Right values as “normal” and these young teenagers just entering the political landscape have to make important choices outside of the sway of the identities of their parents. They get to see an example of a character forging their own values in Truly Devious.

This ploy super important to the first book, but know that Maureen Johnson is not here to give you a fun little mystery to solve in a pure escapist world. Politicians with horrible and divisive motives still work in this story.

I really enjoyed the twisting, surprising world of Truly Devious. But reader, be warned: the mystery is not solved at the end of this first installment. To really find out the answer to the Ellingham case, you have to read all three books! Which, I will say, was fine with me because I enjoyed the first one so much. I couldn’t wait to read the next two.

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