“The Vanishing Stair, the sequel to “Truly Devious” by Maureen Johnson is a brilliant combination of present murder mystery combined with historical murder mystery/kidnapping/disappearing heiress story. The main character, Stevie, is addicted to solving mysteries, preferably murder mysteries. She fancies herself a modern-day Sherlock Holmes.
The setting is a private school in the mountains of Vermont, where moose might run rampant and maple syrup is a staple food. The school was founded by Albert Ellingham for special kids who deserved to have their talents nurtured. Unfortunately, during the start of the school in the 1930s, there was a murder of a student, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped, the wife was killed, and the daughter never was found. Ellingham was killed shortly thereafter when a bomb went off on the boat he was in.
The mysteries from that time period alternate with present day Ellingham Academy, which Stevie attends. In the first book, after the death of a student, Stevie is taken from the school by her parents. But in the second book, a school friend’s father, politician Edward King, whom Stevie despises but her parents adore (and work for), convinces them to let Stevie return to school. His son attends the school, and when Stevie left, son David’s behavior became terrible. King wants Stevie at Ellingham to control David’s emotions. Stevie feels conflicted by this because David was a good friend, maybe more, in the first book. While she wants to be at Ellingham where she might have a chance to solve the mystery she is obsessed with, and where she can be with her friends — including David — she is also torn because she said she wouldn’t tell David the terms of her return.
As with any middle book in a continuing series, more clues are laid. There is another student death, and Stevie realizes that there is more at stake for those who solve the mystery of Ellingham’s daughter’s disappearance. She also begins to work for a rather quirky professor who is studying the founder of Ellingham Academy and what happened to his family.
Johnson’s writing is rock-solid, and the characters she creates are unique and well drawn. Stevie, especially, is a far-from-perfect main character. She has a difficult time getting along with people and seldom knows what to say or how to react in rather mundane situations. She is single-minded in her determination to solve crime, and in doing so, she occasionally offends her friends. So basically, she’s a character whom readers will be able to relate to in that while she has definite strengths, she also has some deficits that are readily apparent. She makes mistakes when dealing with people and shares her insecurities with the reader.
The ending to this middle book is brilliant. Johnson gives the reader some big reveals. So many that the reader is tempted to think it’s the last book — that finally Johnson is going to explain what happened to Alice Ellingham all those years ago and where she is now. But cleverly, and Johnson is a very clever and able writer, she explains a bit but then slams the reader with new information that means there are more mysteries to be puzzled over and solved in the next book. Can’t wait.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Katherine Tegen Books, the publisher, and Megan Beatie, publicist, for review purposes.