Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson | Review

Posted April 9, 2018 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Books, Reviews / 10 Comments

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson | ReviewTruly Devious (Truly Devious #1) by Maureen Johnson
Also by this author: The Name of the Star (Shades of London, #1), The Madness Underneath (Shades of London, #2), The Shadow Cabinet, The Bane Chronicles (The Bane Chronicles)
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on January 16th 2018
Genres: Mystery, Young Adult
Pages: 420 •Format: HardcoverSource: Purchased

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. 

The two interwoven mysteries of this first book in the Truly Devious series dovetail brilliantly, and Stevie Bell will continue her relentless quest for the murderers in books two and three.

You know when you are so certain you are going to love a book that you break all book buying bans to pre-order it and already have a place of honor waiting for it on your shelves? That’s how I was about Truly Devious- I loved the Shades of London series by Johnson that I binged last fall and I was super excited for a novel that included mystery + boarding school so I was expecting it to be a 4-5 star read, easily. So you can imagine my disappointment when I was finding myself bored with the novel I was so eagerly anticipating, that I found myself having to force myself to sit down and read.

Things I Enjoyed About Truly Devious:

  • The setting- a quirky, mountaintop boarding school built by an eccentric millionaire (billionaire?) who only let in the best of the best? And the buildings are all named after famous mythological figures? Count me in.
  • Some of the funny political undercurrents- the protagonist’s parents work for an insanely conservative (and ridiculous) politician and hearing details about his platforms is painful (but also super relevant to today’s political climate).
  • The students various talents that got them admitted to Ellingham academy. Some are science prodigies, some are YouTube stars, and some just like solving mysteries (like Stevie) but it was refreshing to see that the school defines being “gifted” in so many different ways, and not just by typical book smart traits.
  • The true crime element. I feel like true crime is so on trend right now, especially in the podcast world (hello season one of Serial, I have never found another as good as you!) so it was a fun focus for the story.
  • Albert Ellingham is basically Jay Gatsby- I was getting major Gatsby vibes when learning about the eccentric school founder’s life (Parties in his mountain top escape where celebrities frequented? Hidden passages? Self made millionaire). He also sort of reminded me of William Randolph Hearst what with his castle and missing granddaughter and all that.
  • There’s a very real portrayal of anxiety/panic attacks through the main character and how she manages them, which I appreciated.
  • The riddles! The Truly Devious note in particular was chilling and perfectly atmospheric.

What I Was Less Than Impressed With:

  • I felt like this book was trying to hard to make the characters quirky or dismissive of “mainstream” things, which is a trope I tire of easily. Like why does the protagonist always need to be someone who rejects beauty/fashion and conventional hobbies? I also found the students hard to tell apart and there were a lot in the beginning that were introduced during a scene in the study yurt and I felt like I was expected to remember them despite only briefly meeting each one.
  • I didn’t realize there would be chapters that were full blown flashbacks to Ellingham’s day and they didn’t always flow with the parallel modern story line.
  • I felt like not a whole lot happened. Nothing was really resolved, especially with the Ellingham case, and it almost felt like a filler book (that would typically be a second or third book in a series, not a first book).

Overall: Not my favorite Maureen Johnson book, and a bit of a let down given the premise and atmospheric setting. I’ll probably still pick up the second book to see what happens, but I don’t think I’ll be adding it permanently to my collection. I’ll just be quietly waiting over here for the next Shades of London book…


10 responses to “Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson | Review

  1. I totally agree with all of this! I really liked it for some reason; I think it just hit a mood I was in? I loooved the setting and different people at the school, but you’re right – being bored of mainstream culture/things is kind of a lame trope. I’m glad you’re thinking of continuing though! I’m curious about what’s going to happen next.

    • Yeah I think I’ll pick up the sequel because I still want to know who Truly Devious was (and who flashed that creepy message into Stevie’s bedroom that one night) but I think I’ll have much more realistic expectations for myself this time around.

  2. I’ve been really curious about this, and some of the things you liked I think I would too. Sorry to hear this one was a bit disappointing. I’ll still read it probably but won’t rush it…

    • Yes, that’s exactly how I felt, like nothing much happened! (Which is weird because usually the first book in a series is action packed as it sets everything up). I definitely will read the sequel to see what happens but I’ll probably get it from the library rather than buying it.

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