2nd October 2020
Book Review: Truly, Devious
Truly Devious begins as all good stories do, with a murder.
"For anyone who has ever dreamed of finding a body in the library."
When a book starts out with a dedication like this, you can sign me right up! In my humble opinion, the mystery genre encompasses the most superior forms of literature – what can I say, I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So without even needing to look at the blurb, between the dedication and the aesthetic cover I was already sold before I started reading.
Truly Devious begins as all good stories do, with a murder. I’m kidding, it actually starts with our protagonist Stevie Bell applying to highschool (riveting stuff). Ellingham Academy is a boarding school for gifted students nestled within the glorious mountains of Vermont (honestly, where can I find the application form, I’m gonna fill it out right now). Of course there are hidden tunnels and passageways that we get to explore throughout the book and this really sets the mood. But let’s get back to the plot…
Stevie, like many of us, is a massive true crime fan and fancies herself to be a bit of a Sherlock Holmes. Her purpose for attending Ellingham Academy is very clear; to solve the mystery that occurred there in 1936. The school’s wealthy founder Albert Ellingham loved games and riddles, and believed that all children should be allowed to pursue their interests without limits, to be allowed to have fun while learning. Unfortunately, shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped and he died in mysterious circumstances. The only piece of evidence was a note, a mocking clue signed ‘Truly, Devious’. It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history and Stevie was going to rectify that. But soon after her own arrival at the school, a student is murdered and it appears as if the Truly Devious may have returned.
“Albert Ellingham said knowledge was his religion and libraries were his church, so he built a church.”
Maureen Johnson does an absolutely fantastic job of intertwining both mysteries in the one book. Often it can be incredibly confusing to constantly switch between timelines, but she manages to make both threads connect seamlessly with one another across time. It was also an excellent way to provide the reader with contextual information in the form of interview notes and recordings, rather than the usual unnecessary exposition. The actual storyline itself is a ‘slow burn’ mystery so instead of knowing all the rooms, weapons, and suspects from page one, Johnson first introduces us to daily life at Ellingham Academy – where Stevies first challenge is making friends #relatable. But by no means is this a boring book. Each of the twists and turns are well planned, with new information and revelations arriving with perfect timing to keep your interest piqued. Once I started reading, ‘just one more chapter’ quickly became my mantra. The novel simply refused to be put down until I was finished. I recently saw another reader comment that “Johnson turns up the heat so gradually that you don’t notice the water is boiling until it is too late” and I genuinely cannot think of a better way to express it.
“Schools may be famous for many things: academics, graduates, sports teams. They are not supposed to be famous for murders.”
But it isn’t just the plot that makes this novel an absolute pleasure to read; the characters are one of the defining features of this story. Stevie herself is complex and like most of us, is terrified at the prospect of having to interact with people and really just wants to curl up in the corner and read a book. Many other readers have also remarked upon the accuracy of how her anxiety and panic attacks are represented throughout the book. Johnson doesn’t neglect her supporting characters either, with each of Stevie’s newfound friends having a unique set of quirks to make you instantly fall in love with them. And it’s at this point that I should probably mention the casual wealth of diversity in the novel which is awesome to see; we’ve got a black lesbian scientist whose partner is nonbinary, a girl wearing a hijab and another in a wheelchair. But my favourite character has to be Nate, the genius fantasy writer who can no longer seem to write anything of substance and is guaranteed to have a meltdown if you ask him how his book is going (I have honestly never connected with a character on such a spiritual level).
“Few words are more chilling when put together than make friends.”
Unlike some of the classical mystery crime novels, this YA story is incredibly accessible to new readers and provides a nice introduction to the genre (hopefully providing encouragement to explore it further). Although longtime fans of Agatha Christie will also be happy to note the many subtle nods to her work throughout.
“Where do you look for someone who's never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair.”
So if I’ve left you intrigued and you want to find out ‘whodunnit’, you can find the Truly Devious ebook right here! And you’ll be glad to know that we also have the second book ready for you to snatch up right now (trust me, after the cliffhanger at the end of book 1, you are not going to be able to wait).