Book Reviews

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson – Book Review

The book cover of Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Warning – possible spoilers! (Tiny ones, though, and I’ll try to avoid even those; I swear I’ll give my best not to ruin it for you… :-))

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson – Book Details

TITLE – Truly Devious

SERIES – Truly Devious, book #1

AUTHOR – Maureen Johnson

GENREyoung adult, mystery, boarding school, dark academia, historical fiction



MY RATING – 4 of 5


What It Is About

‘Look, a riddle, time for fun,
Should we use a rope or gun?’

Wanting to create a place “where learning is a game”, Albert Ellingham founded Ellingham Academy – a boarding school in Vermont for the brightest young thinkers, inventors, and artists.

But in 1936, the school became a scene of a crime. Albert’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and a student was murdered on the school grounds. The only clue was a mocking riddle signed with the pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” The case remained unsolved for decades.

But the school remained open. In the present day, we follow Stevie Bell during her first year at Ellingham Academy. Stevie is obsessed with crime and mysteries and she is convinced that, given the opportunity, she might be able to solve the Truly Devious case.

But just attending the school will prove itself to be a challenge enough, with the eccentric staff and the quirky, already successful housemates.

And then strange things start to occur. A new tragedy strikes, and it almost seems like it might be a revisit from Truly Devious…

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson – My Review

A girl from Pittsburgh came to Ellingham Academy and she wanted to see a dead body. She got her wish.

Truly Devious was originally intended to be a trilogy (now there’s also a fourth book but it follows another case). Because of that, the pacing is a bit off in the beginning and you don’t get the whole story and all the answers right away. It’s probably best to know from the start that the first three books are all really just one long story and to mentally plan accordingly.

I certainly wish I knew binge reading was the way to go about this series. Now I don’t have enough time to pick up the next instalment for a while, but how am I supposed to leave it at this? How?

Also, how come I didn’t know this was a half historical thriller? I knew it was a YA murder mystery set at a boarding school, but I had no idea it was following two timelines – one in the present day and the other one set in 1936.

Schools may be famous for many things: academics, graduates, sports teams. They are not supposed to be famous for murders.

There were so many things I loved about this book. Just the vibes of it. The fact that it’s a slow burn mystery.

I loved the riddles! As someone who never managed to join two verses together, I just loved how these were done. They were menacing and disturbing, but there was also something playful about them.

I also loved the setting. The gothic style boarding school set in the remote mountains of Vermont that was a scene of a terrible crime over half a century ago. The dark academia aesthetics and feel (although maybe more gray than dark).

It was, in short, idyllic and fantastical, and may have remained as such had it not been for that foggy night in April 1936 when Truly Devious struck.

The pacing – it had its weird moments, but wasn’t too bad overall. While the present day chapters were dragging a bit at the beginning, the 1936 perspective kept the things interesting.

We were given glimpses of what happened, but only tiny ones. The bits of information we did get were often contradictory. It was clear the whole time something else was going on in the background.

There was also a strong sense that the mystery from the past and the mystery from the present were connected, but how? Is someone using the sensationalistic nature of the first crime to cover their tracks? Or is there a real possibility Truly Devious has stricken again?

Honestly, I really enjoyed the mystery and trying to puzzle out everything.

Anyways, this Ellingham Academy seems like a really prestigious place and the only way a student can get in is if they have something they excel at. And Stevie is great at, well… obsessing over unsolved murder cases.

Her mother gave her that look again. We kind of wanted the going-out, shopping, prom-going type, and we got this weird, creepy one, and we love it but what is it talking about, ever?

Stevie is a booklover who especially likes Sherlock Holmes and other murder mysteries.

Like many not like other girls MCs out there, Stevie is someone who wears jeans and plain t-shirts most of the time. It was kind of cute, though, that what little sense of fashion she had was inspired by what her favorite fictional detectives wore.

And her biggest dream is to find a dead body and solve the mystery of how and why it happened. And of course – who done it.

So yeah, Stevie takes that love for books and mysteries we all booklovers share and takes it to a whole other level. Which is why many people, including her parents, think she’s weird. And it is also a reason she got accepted into EA, as she is convinced she could solve the decades old case.

You know when you’re the top fan—the one who knows the words and feels the gaps and senses the disruptions. You know when you are the one who gets it.

Stevie uses true crime as a way to deal with anxiety. Which gave her a vulnerable side many people, including myself, would probably be able to relate to. Especially because the anxiety rep was done so, so well.

The fact that she uses true crime to keep her anxiety in check… I mean, as counterintuitive as it sounds, I did hear a lot of people say watching horror and thriller movies really helps them when anxiety kicks in. So I guess it made sense.

There’s something very innocent about Stevie – she’s like a kid. Like – even younger than presented in the book. She doesn’t always necessarily have a full grasp on social situations and what’s going on around her. But she’s sure she could get into a mind of a criminal and solve the case.

Stevie had no fears of the dead. The living, however, sometimes gave her the creeps.

It was actually quite endearing – her fascination with murders and criminals. It did feel a bit presumptuous at times – her thinking she can solve a case so many others failed. But then, I guess it’s only presumptuous if you can’t really solve it.

I’m not sure I got a good grip on the other characters, though. They were kind of bland to me. A bit two dimensional. They felt like the author was desperately trying to make them distinctive and interesting, so she gave them a lot of weird clothes and interesting hobbies, but not the actual personality.

As for the romance… can we even call it a romance? What the hell was that?

It was so weird, but at the same time it had so much sense, considering their age and everything. I don’t know, I’m gonna have to think some more about how I felt about that whole part. But I am curious to see how their ‘relationship’ develops in the following instalments.

It had the feeling of a strange game, and one that filled Stevie with a low, simmering worry. Games are not fun when you don’t know you’re playing.

Also, there was a start of a storyline that might get more space in the next books, that I’m not sure I care about.

All together, these are not small complaints and, reading my review now, I almost feel like they should have bothered me more. But they didn’t, mostly because I still had a really good time with this book.

I loved Stevie’s quirky personality and her obsession with murders. I loved the setting – boarding school, one of my favorites. The atmosphere was also done really well. Modern gothic. Very ominous, uncertain, deceiving and untrustworthy.

And though I’m still unsure about a few details, the mystery certainly managed to intrigue me.

It wasn’t a kind of mystery you can solve right away. I was aware the whole time I was missing crucial pieces of the puzzle. But I still enjoyed the ride.

She had to go, and it also felt like a possible mistake. Some mistakes you have to make.

The book ended on a cliffhanger. Though not so much a cliffhanger really, but more of a “to be continued”.

It feels like this first book only scratched the surface of what’s to come. Which is good, because even though I liked this book enough for the first in the series, I needed more mystery solving and a bit more action than what I got so far.

But I’m confident the next installments will only get better. And as I already enjoyed this one quite a bit, I can see this series being one I love and happily go back to.

My Signature

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