Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Released: January 16, 2018
Pages: 416 pages (hardcover)
Theme(s): Ambition, tragedy, games, anxiety, friendship, crime, socio-economic class issues, anarchy
Genre(s): Young Adult / Mystery / Detective / Historical Fiction
Age Group: 12+


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.


I ordered Truly Devious on a whim early this year to use a Amazon gift card I received this past Christmas. It was a truly random pick, as I strangely had encountered no online hype for this book from my blogging circles and, at the moment, I’m not taking many (monetary) risks on the unknown. But my birthday was coming up and something in my head was ringing, “Treat yo’ self.”

It was a complete surprise from an author with whom I’m only a little familiar, having read one of her earliest works 13 Little Blue Envelopes as a pre-teen (a random Christmas gift and so-so read, according to my vague memory).

More recently I picked up The Name of the Star when I first started book blogging. I can’t remember if I wrote a blog post on it, as I don’t remember loving it by the end…(I think it had something to do with the paranormal aspect.)

Now that I think about it, the premise of the former book is strangely similar to that of Truly Devious in that both involve an American teen attending a boarding school under unique circumstances and uncovering a mystery steeped in history. As someone who grew up with Harry Potter, I was a kid who fantasized about going off to boarding school, so I understand the allure of the premise.

Before I get into my book talk, I want to say that I loved Truly Devious. I think it’s a great book for this moment in time. I’m impressed with how Maureen Johnson’s gets teenagers and writes them with such respect. This book is very inclusive with a diverse cast and sheds light on important contemporary teenage issues.


The protagonist is Stevie Bell, a sixteen-year-old girl who is eager to attend Ellingham Academy, an exclusive two-year boarding school that’s open to any students who demonstrate some sort of creative genius, thinking, and/or innovation, regardless of family or economic background. To her immense surprise, Stevie gets into the school due on an essay she submits about her interest in criminology.

We find out that she suffers from right-leaning parents who are fundamentally different from her and anxiety in the from of panic attacks that began as a pre-teen. During a isolated moment of anxiety she has at school, we discover her interest in criminology developed as a kind of coping mechanism to focus her mind on something she can control. These details make her a character unlike any I’ve ever encountered in YA literature. I love that young girls who read this book can have someone like Stevie to look up to.

The main attraction in attending Ellingham Academy is Stevie’s interest in the 1930s murder mystery involving the founder and his family that was never solved in the 1930s. While she investigates this murder and begins to make friends, a new murder occurs on the school grounds that seems both tied to the original case and her presence, as her interest in the case is not a secret.


The book alternates between chapters related to Stevie getting settled into the school, making friends, and working on special projects and chapters written from the perspective of characters from the 1930s and interview transcripts from people of interest. The switches in perspective really heighten the narrative tension and make the book a page-turner.

The book is filled with eccentric and diverse characters. I think everyone could relate to Stevie’s insecurities about making friends and difficulties relating to her parents. What I found most beautiful about this book is how delicately Johnson treads upon situations of fundamentally different people interacting with one another. Neither Johnson nor Stevie, attempt to slander or demonize her parents for their beliefs. Also, in investigating the murder that occurs halfway through the book, Stevie is able to set aside her growing dislike of the victim to discover what truly happens to him.

There is even a scene with a troublemaking anarchist in a flashback scene that in written in such a way that, in hindsight, makes the reason for the kidnappings and murders much more personal and complex.

I also think Johnson does a great job reminding readers that solving crimes is not just a game. Games are an important aspect of the story, the founder of the Ellingham Academy himself famously a fan. For Stevie, it is clear that she enters the school confident in her knowledge of the case and desire to solve it, but the book’s events make it impossible for her to ignore the human side to these mysterious tragedies.

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend checking this book out! The next book cannot come soon enough! I feel like this book is a strong beginning to what will hopefully be a terrific trilogy. It is a gripping story that unfolds wonderfully, and I feel like (and hope) Johnson has some important things to say in the future books related to social-economic class and society in this novel. While this story is a thrilling read, I see a lot of potential for it to be more than that.

Have you read Truly Devious?

What are some of your favorite YA mysteries?

Thank you for reading!
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6 thoughts on “Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

  1. EarlGreyBooks

    I adore Maureen Johnson. She’s one of my favourite authors and has been since I was about 15 or 16 and read her books for the first time. I haven’t read this one yet but I am so excited for it. Even more so now that I know you enjoyed it!

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