Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*Disclaimer: This review may contain spoilers. All thoughts and opinions are my own, my preferences may be different to yours. Please keep that in mind.


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.

-From Harper Collins


This book had been on my TBR list for quite some time now. But I have had issues with reading for almost twice as long as that. I’ve found books that I thought sounded good or interesting or that I was like “Oh my gods, I need to read this.” but never read them. That all changed when I picked this one up again.

I wish I could have attended Ellingham Academy when I was in school. You know that expression “I felt like I was there.” based on the description in the story alone? I rarely ever feel that way. Yeah I love the settings and scenes created in stories but never before have I ever felt so immersed in the story. I really felt like I was there, right in the middle of it all. Walking the campus, seeing the statues and looming trees and gothic architecture. I felt like I was there in Ellingham Academy. It was unreal.

I have to admit at the first mention of Stevie Bell’s anxiety and panic attacks, I was pleasantly surprised. I am so used to people not talking about it ever. And Johnson doesn’t just state the character has it and moves on. It’s not used to just say that the main character has it and move on. Johnson actually shows what a panic attack can look likes and in my opinion does a decent job of it. We get to see Stevie deal with it throughout the story, what her anxiety looks like and how it effects her and what she does to deal with it.

And it’s not just the highlight on mental health issues but there are also elements of LGBTQ+. Janelle, Stevie’s closest friend at the Academy, is lesbian (I am presuming, however it is not clearly stated). And another character, Vi, prefers using they/them pronouns. It’s not a lot but the fact that Johnson made a point to have some representation in there is a good start.

And holy crap, what a story it is. It is such a unique teen fiction mystery novel. I haven’t experienced much teen fiction mystery that didn’t include some sort of fantasy or supernatural aspect to it. But Truly Devious does such a good job of doing this. It reminds me so much of an Agatha Christie novel (which I’ve seen some other reviews make comments on that too so I can’t be that far off).

Now, let’s talk about the characters. Stevie Bell, our main character is in her first year at Ellingham Academy, determined to solve the mystery of the kidnapping and eventual death of Iris Ellingham and student Dottie Epstein and disappearance of Alice Ellingham in 1936. Stevie is a crime buff to the 10th degree. She is Sherlock Holmes reincarnated. She struggles with anxiety and her complete opposite of her parents. They are super conservative, very involved in politics and expect so much of her that she is just not interested in. Her knowledge of crime and procedures and the Ellingham case are astounding and constantly surprising. The amount of detail that Johnson provides for everything, the snippets of classes we get to sit on, the knowledge that Stevie just knows. It amazing.

But it’s not just Stevie we meet, there are her dorm mates; Janelle, the one who builds things and Nate, the one who writes. These two plus Stevie make up the first years of Minerva house. The second years are the artsy Ellie, mysterious David, and YouTube star Hayes. All elusive and just as quirky.

And there are so much more, the teaching staff, the security guard. And of course the Ellingham’s.

And what is a mystery with out it’s cliffhangers. I keyboard smashed when I reached the end and saw how Johnson ended it. I felt the air leave my body. I was stunned. Stunned. Stunned. It caused me to go get the second and third book from my library immediately because I so desperately wanted to know what happens next.

Final Thoughts:

I am giving this first book in the Truly Devious series a five out of five cups of tea. This was the first book in months that I have been able to read and it was so very good. I loved the all the details Johnson gave us. The in depth description of the setting and the wonderful world she built in just this first book alone is incredible. It was a little dark and twisted and had a hint of the macabre which I just die for. I didn’t mind the jumping back and forth from past case to present. I think they way it was spaced out was perfect and I was constantly left on the edge of my seat. Which in turn made me even more desperate to finish the book in one sitting and find out what happens.

I didn’t find anything that I particularly didn’t like or wished that was different. This is genuinely one of my top 2020 reads.

I hope you enjoyed todays post! I will be reading the rest of this series as soon as possible and hopefully be doing some more reviews. If you’ve read Truly Devious let me know what you thought! Or if you have any recommendations I am always open to hear them!


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