8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Truly, Devious by Maureen Johnson

Title: Truly, Devious

Author: Maureen Johnson

Genre: Crime, Young Adult

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication date: January 16 2018
Paperback: 432 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: First in a trilogy

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher

Format (e- or p-): ebook

Review

My 2018 is off to a good start with Truly, Devious, the new book by Maureen Johnson – the first in a crime YA trilogy, featuring two different mysteries. Those mysteries – murder cases – are separated by decades but taking place at the prestigious Ellingham Academy for gifted students, a paradisiacal place where you’d never think tragedies might happen.

But happen they did.

Ellingham Academy was founded in the early twentieth century by millionaire tycoon Albert Ellingham as a free boarding school for selected and gifted students, a place where “learning is a game”. But shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and one of the school students goes missing at the same time – all leading to unthinkable tragedy. The one clue, a letter received days before the crime, containing a mocking riddle concocted using cut letters from various newspapers and simply signed “Truly, Devious”. This has become an unsolved crime – a mystery for the ages.

Enter Stevie Bell, a student of crime hoping to become a detective one day. She is about to become a first-year student at Ellingham Academy, where her main project will be to solve the Ellingham crime. Her first official task is to make the case personal: to learn even more about those involved. Her second, self-imposed task is to get to grips with her life away from her parents and alone for the first time, dealing with her anxiety and recurring panic attacks. None of this is easy, especially when navigating the tumultuous life at the academy where the range and diversity of students – some of whom become her friends, some of whom become potential romantic interests – is as great as the number of crime novels she loves.

But just as Stevie is settling down in her life at Ellingham, Truly, Devious makes a return – just before a student dies in mysterious circumstances. Can Stevie – an untried, anxious, wannabe detective -truly solve not one, but two crimes? And are the crimes even related at all?

With intertwined mysteries and alternative timelines, Truly, Devious is a fantastic mix of contemporary YA and crime mystery. The former comes with the type of robust storytelling I have come to expect from Maureen Johnson – a mix of snarky teenagerhood and developing found families. This side of the story actually reminded me of the Suite Scarlet books a lot especially the bonds forged between Stevie and her new group of friends. I also loved seeing Stevie’s anxiety dealt with care and consideration.

The latter – the mystery side of the novel – is where Truly, Devious shines for me. The snippets of the historical mystery interspersed in the story are equally bewildering and heartbreaking. I rushed through the pages wanting to find out more not only about the crime itself but about the people involved in it.

One of my main difficulties when reading crime YA is the question of verisimilitude: I am always baffled by how is it possible that unexperienced teenagers can solve crimes ahead of their adult counterparts? And although there is certainly an element of that there (Stevie is after all, a budding detective prodigy), her knowledge not only of crime but also of the ins and outs behind crime-solving are really well established by the novel in a way that didn’t feel implausible. This does not mean that Stevie doesn’t make mistakes in her eagerness and driven curiosity: in fact, her mistakes abound and so do the consequences of making them.

Meanwhile, threaded throughout is Stevie’s ongoing growth as a young woman: from taking the first steps toward independence to her first sexual experiences, from her continuous clash with her parents and their right-wing views and politics (adding a very 2018 spin to the narrative) to her observations about the pervasive way that patriarchy affects that very relationship with her parents and their expectations for her. It’s all heady stuff that I inhaled in pretty much one sitting.

My one problem with the novel is that it ends on two unbearable cliff-hangers and now I have to wait who knows how long for more of it. But wait I shall. This was SO GOOD.

Rating: 8 – Fanfreakintastic

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