Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: "Truly Devious" by Maureen Johnson

Stevie Bell has always been a bit different than her peers, much to her parents' chagrin. Much of her childhood and teenage years have been spent feeding her obsession with true crime and mysteries. Her parents wanted her to do the things "normal" teenagers do—hang out with friends, participate in extracurricular activities, maybe even date. But what Stevie wants more than anything is to solve crimes, to one day be as revered as some of the legendary detectives she loves reading about.

When she learns about Ellingham Academy, a prestigious private school in Vermont, she is absolutely desperate to attend. Not only does Ellingham essentially design each student's curriculum around their own interests, but back in the 1930s, the Academy was the scene of one of the most notorious mysteries and unsolved crimes ever. The wife and young daughter of the Academy's wealthy founder were kidnapped and the kidnappers demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars from Ellingham, but he never got his family back. The only clue to the kidnapping was a ransom note in the form of a mocking poem, signed by "Truly Devious."

Stevie wants to solve this mystery once and for all, and her passion for doing so is the criteria that gets her admitted to Ellingham. But even though she has a real purpose, and attends a school that supports that purpose, adjustment isn't as easy as she had hoped. She's never really made friends before, and isn't sure of what to make of her eccentric and creative dorm-mates, including a scientist and inventor, a popular and handsome web-series actor, a novelist, an artist with a penchant for alcohol and the saxophone, and David, a coder, who seemed to get under Stevie's skin from the moment they met.

One night, when she is participating in the filming of a web series about the kidnapping, it appears that "Truly Devious" has returned to the scene of their original crime, when Stevie sees another mocking ransom note. Not long after, someone is found dead—but did they fall prey to an accident, or was it murder? And is the murderer one of her classmates? Despite being warned about playing detective, that is exactly what Stevie does. But along the way she needs to realize that what she discovers may not make her a hero among her peers as she always imagined it would—and it could threaten the future of the school, or at least her enrollment. Is solving the crime worth the potential damage to the one place she finally feels she fits in?

Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious is truly terrific. It's a great read, full of really interesting characters, a dynamic setting, and a compelling mystery that definitely hooked me from the start. I love how the book shifted between the present day and the original kidnapping back in the 1930s, and looked at the way that case unfolded. Ellingham seems like the perfect place to go to school, and I wish a place like that existed when I was younger! (Without the murders and stuff.)

Johnson is a great storyteller. Her use of imagery was so evocative and I could picture the Academy in both past and present. She is also tremendously skilled at creating tension between characters and situations—I really wasn't sure whom to trust and it's rare that I feel that way when reading these books. I also liked the way she had diverse characters without making a big deal out of them; it was just matter-of-fact.

This is the first book in a series, so the ending was a bit of a confusing cliffhanger, but you can bet I'll be picking up the next book, The Vanishing Stair. I really thought this was a lot of fun, and a great read.

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