I requested this book for my birthday (I always give my mom a small list to choose from: that way she knows she is getting me something I want, and I still don’t know which one(s) I’m getting). This year, she asked me if she was getting the correct book, because she had read the description and it seemed a little out of character for me. That’s true, I usually give her fantasy titles. I rarely read contemporary, but sometimes something just sounds like a lot of fun. Truly Devious peaked my interest straightaway with the Agatha Christie-like way in which it was presented. So I told her this, and got it as my gift.
Truly Devious consists of two main storylines. That of Albert Ellingham, founder of the school whose wife and child went missing in 1936. One of his students was murdered, and his family was never found. The second is that of Stevie Bell, who is a student at Ellingham Academy in the present time. She is obsessed with becoming a detective, and with the Ellingham mystery in particular. The storylines switch by the chapter, but of course we get a bit of Ellingham mystery in Stevie’s storyline too, because she is trying to solve that age-old problem.
Besides the two storylines, there are also two mysteries. The one mentioned above, and the murder of Hayes Major, a student at Ellingham Academy who is in the same dorm as Stevie. This is the one mostly focused on during Truly, Devious, although we are still not getting answers about the full story. That will continue too in the second book. The fact that it ends on such a cliffhanger is both a great way to end a book (I wanted badly to continue reading immediately) and a frustrating one. Neither mystery is truly solved by the end of this book, and you’re wondering why you’re stopping in the middle of everything while the book itself is finished. It feels a bit out of step.
The main mystery of the Ellingham family does get a lot of attention, even though Hayes’ murder is on the foreground. As I said, it both has its own storyline AND Stevie is looking into it from hers. But we don’t really get anywhere with it, except for a big realisation in the final chapters. It mostly consists of identifying the players, learning more about the circumstances that are known. Stevie is very active looking into it, and she mostly gets away with it. This set-up actually works because Ellingham Academy is a school that nurtures their students’ creativity, interests and affinities. It’s a free learning environment, so Stevie can do whatever she wants – as long as it has academic purpose. Because she wants to become a detective, she meets that requirement.
Stevie is, of course, a sensible girl as well. She knows when to call in the authorities, and volunteers the information she knows to them. That makes her someone you wouldn’t mind looking over your shoulder now and then. The downside of the Ellingham Academy stimulating her is that the overall goal of the school isn’t clearly defined. Why is it this kind of school? What kind of examination does it have, how does it compare to other schools? In Truly, Devious, it seems the kids can do any project they want, without bothering much with standardized testing and schooling.
It also raises the question (as Stevie does herself) why Stevie was chosen to be at Ellingham Academy. I’m thinking that it comes into play later, that it is no coincidence, but we don’t find any evidence of that in this book. I’m also very keen on discovering what exactly happened tfo the Ellingham family. Right now, I’m thinking that mother and daughter went into hiding for some reason but again – absolutely no evidence. They seemed like a nice family, with a few weird friends who are keeping things from the cops. But whaaaaaaaat?
You can tell I’m invested in this mystery, and that’s the best compliment a detective novel can get. The murder of Hayes was a bit underwhelming in comparison, but only a bit. He was the sort of person you wouldn’t mind being killed off, and Maureen Johnson could have gone for more drama by killing off someone nicer (then again, she did that in 1936 with poor Dottie). But Hayes was perfect for it, considering what we come to understand about him. I like that this is already in the making before his death, and looking back on it Stevie starts figuring it out. Personally, I would have killed off Ellie. What an annoying girl that one is.
I really loved Truly Devious, and I can’t wait to read the second book (it’s coming in january 2019). I think Maureen Johnson has created a one-of-a-kind YA detective novel and I would encourage anyone to read it. I really did get a bit of the Agatha Christie vibes it promised and I’m very happy with that. I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and usually detective novels don’t live up to that. This YA book certainly manages the same kind of feel. I think it’s because the murders then and Hayes’ murder are probably connected, but we aren’t given any clues yet as to how. We need to unravel the full mystery to understand how all the pieces fit together. I’m definitely recommending this book!