Review | Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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.

I love listening to podcasts about true crime, although it inevitably ends up making me jumpy and less trusting for at least a few days after the fact. I also love boarding school books so it should be no surprise that I picked up Truly Devious purely based off of its premise. I went in with little idea what to expect and, thankfully, that worked out wonderfully.

Truly Devious is told in two alternating parts: present day, where students are attending a private boarding school, and the past, where the affluent Ellingham family has dealings with Truly Devious. I will admit that I was slightly more intrigued by the Ellingham family’s storyline, though it intersected quite well with the events of the present day: this storyline didn’t fall into the trap of being just an infodump and instead felt like we were being treated to two mysteries for the price of one. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of plot twists, including the large reveal at the end. That’s not to say that everything is tied up nicely, though: as this is a Maureen Johnson book, I left with many more questions than answers and am eagerly anticipating the sequel(s).

The characters themselves can best be described as “quirky” and passionate but, with the exception of Stevie, they didn’t feel fully fleshed out. As a result, the inevitable romance fell flat for me, especially when it started to overshadow the plot towards the end. My favourite of the group was easily Janelle, a queer POC in STEM (engineering, specifically) whose girlfriend uses they/them pronouns.

Overall, I absolutely loved the mystery but not that cruel that cliffhanger ending. (I only have myself to blame for that, though, as I thought this was a standalone.) Here’s hoping that more answers are provided in the next book!

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