“Truly Devious” by much-loved young adult author Maureen Johnson is a fabulous novel. It begins as a mystery about a murder that took place over 80 years ago at an elite private school in Vermont.
The novel is really two stories combined into one mystery. There is the decades-old mystery of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, who disappeared while on a car ride. The wife’s body was found, but there has been no trace of the three-year-old daughter, and what happened to her remains a mystery. The kidnappers did contact Ellingham, demanded a huge sum of money, and escaped with the money.
Then there is the present, and a young girl named Stevie Bell who is fascinated by all mysteries. A la Sherlock Holmes, she examines facts and delves into mysteries of all kinds. She is obsessed with the Ellingham murder and applies to the private school with the thought of solving the crime.
The school had been founded by the fabulously wealthy eccentric Ellingham so that there would be a school for gifted teens where they would never be bored. The school would be filled with riddles and games — all to make learning fun. The school was built into the side of a mountain, and no expense was spared. The students attend for free and all their costs are covered.
It was ironic that the letter warning of the impending murder was written as a riddle. When his wife died and his daughter disappeared, Ellingham was devastated. He died not long after when a boat he was sailing exploded because of a bomb. An anarchist was convicted of Ellingham’s wife’s murder, but most don’t believe that he committed the crime. His grasp of the English language was not good enough to have written the cleverly crafted riddle that had been sent.
During the course of the story, the reader gets to meet Stevie’s ultra-conservative parents, who only want her to date and wear makeup. Stevie has other interests. She is fascinated by those who share her dorm, students who are every bit as eccentric as she is.
The story is beautifully told with two narratives: The narrative of the past starts with the killing of Dottie Epstein, the student at the school who also died the night of the kidnapping. Then the story moves to the present, and Stevie Bell’s arrival at Ellingham Academy. Readers will love the way Johnson creates a picture of the academy through her expert description. The characters also come alive, each with his or her own eccentricity and personality.
The story ends with a cliffhanger as well as leaving several loose ends that desperately need tying up. Why did Dottie underline that specific passage in the Sherlock Holmes novel when she sensed she was in danger? Who or what killed one of Stevie’s classmates? Was it murder? Was it an accident? And, of course, what happened to Ellingham’s wife and daughter? Who kidnapped them? Did the daughter live?
Most readers, young and old, will be anxiously awaiting the next novel, “The Vanishing Stair” and the third in the trilogy, “The Hand on the Wall.” Also read “The Box in the Woods.”
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books, for review purposes.