Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson | Review

Pages: 420

Genre: young adult, mystery


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.

My thoughts

Rating out of five:


I really hoped this would be a fantastic book, because Maureen Johnson seems like a brilliant person and I already know she’s a good author, so I’ll say upfront I went into this with all the expectations. This book is the most perfect young adult murder mystery I’ve ever read, and I read a lot as a child. Possibly not as many as the main character Stevie, but I’m not planning on going to a boarding school to solve a murder either.

the characters

The characters are very different and all supposedly gifted, though the book could’ve showed more of their abilities. But they seem like complex people, and their different personalities is shown well. Everyone from Stevie’s parents who are supporting a much hated politician (senator?), to the teachers and classmates like Janelle who build awesome machines and wear lemon baby-blue dresses. Or Ellie who lies there clothed in bathtubs, talking about Paris and art, instantly accepting Stevie’s interest. Stevie also has her distinct voice, and the social insecurities (especially in friendships) were relatable. Almost forgot to mention the author Nate among all the cool ladies. He comes with quotes like this:

“It’s two thousand pages and nothing happens. It’s all terrible. I wrote the first book and then I forgot how to write. It used to be that I would sit and write and I would go into some other world—I could see it all. I was totally in another place. But the second it became something I had to do, something in me broke. It’s like I used to know the way to some magical land and I lost the map. I hate myself.”

Nate was unable to bring himself to lie. “I feel kind of better,” he said to Stevie. “I think you’re even more screwed than I am.”

the plot and story

It amazed me how overall relatable to the current time and teenagers this book felt. Let’s just say I’ve highlighted a lot of quotes, amazed at the accuracy. Another thing I loved was the plot, which I can’t say much about without spoiling the book. The murder mystery and boarding school parts are really good, and I love seeing Stevie trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle. As well as the teachers treating them like teenagers, like not allowing access when the police is involved, which other books seem to get wrong.

some negative opinions

Here’s the things I’ve had a problem with in past similiar books and didn’t disappear in this one: past police interviews. They’re so dry, they need to be that to seem semi-realistic. I don’t want to read more than two pages of them, and only if someone turns into a dragon midways.

Also there’s paralell stories with Stevie in one and another girl at Ellingham Acadamy from the past, who was murdered early on. The stories didn’t overlap enough to really be interesting, it was a lot of tension between the characters in the past, but I didn’t know enough of them to care. They simply slowed down the plotline of Stevie. I realized more towards the ending that they surely will or already have presented some crucial clue to the murder mysteries, but I couldn’t bring myself to care in the moment.

Which leads me to my final negative point, that it ends in the middle of it all. I think that was better than making it one very long book, for marketing reasons and because it’s young adult. But this one just came out, I’ll have to wait at least a year for any kind of resolution, perhaps even longer as I now realize it’s a trilogy. Well, I’m already captured by this story.

all in all

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a good murder mystery, especially if young adult and at a boarding school sounds good to you. I grew up on mysteries like Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars, and this book really brought me back there.  

more favourite quotes

“She felt like someone walking out onto the branch of a tree, feeling it bounce and give under each step. And she loved the feeling.”

“I have no idea. The guy looks like he came out of a 3-D printer.”

“Stevie distinctly felt part of her soul die. She hoped it wasn’t an important part.”

“reading books in class because there was nothing new to be learned, so the time might as well be spent doing something useful.”

“Hayes said sorry. Hayes always said sorry. He said it was a joke, but . . . you don’t get to say that, you know? You don’t get to frighten people and threaten them and say you’re only kidding. Because you’re not.”

12 thoughts on “Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson | Review

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