Book Review: TRULY DEVIOUS by Maureen Johnson

Title in white against a blue background
Genre: Thriller
Age Range: YA
Star Rating: 3.5 stars
Series: Yes - first book


truly devious

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.

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


My favourite thing about this book was the character of Stevie. Her true crime obsession really drives her and makes her social interactions so awkward (and quite funny). The disconnect between her mind and others was so relateable. The panic attacks were handled well, the claustrophobic feel but also the way Stevie worked through it. I loved how she helped others through their experiences.

The characters were introduced slowly, building up pictures of each of them. Nate – the author suffering extreme writer’s block – was my favourite because he was unintentionally hilarious. Janelle is such a lovely friend, the type we all want, but their relationship also has the ups and downs you’d expect of new friends. The romance with David came on quite fast, and felt more like a reaction thanks to shock than anything real. It also doesn’t form a central role – which was nice.

There are two murder mysteries at the heart of this book, and neither gets (conclusively) solved. I think the Ellingham mystery is the overarching mystery for the series, to tie it together in more than just the ‘it’s the same person solving mysteries’ way. However, not much happens with that case  until the final chapters when there a little bit of progress made. The mystery is simply set up with flashback like scenes and excerpts from the old interviews.

The ‘present day’ mystery is sort of solved, but there’s an uncertainty as to the extent of the suspect’s involvement. Did they actually kill the person? Or did they tamper with evidence to avoid suspicion falling on them as they had a motive but didn’t actually kill the victim? It was a rather unsatisfying end, lacking the neat bow on a case that I want from a murder mystery.

This is the bulk of why it’s a 3.5 star rating – the ending was so unsatisfying. The other major reason is that the present day murder doesn’t happen until about halfway through. Until then, the only mystery elements are the Ellingham case being set up. The present day stuff could really just be a school story with a main character who just happened to be obsessed with crime.

I think I will read the next book once it gets a paperback release – I want to know how the Ellingham case ends. I don’t like unsolved mysteries.

Read my reviews of other books by Maureen Johnson:

Truly Devious (this series):

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