And we’re back with another episode in Ashley’s quest to find a satisfying and great YA mystery. My latest victim (ha, murder mystery joke) is Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson. This review is not at all behind on the times. I mean, it’s not like the sequel was just released right? Oh, wait…
Who, What, Where?
Sixteen-year-old Stevie has an obsession with all things crime. Podcasts, mystery fiction, cold cases, you name it – Stevie is the expert and she dreams of one day becoming a great detective like her literary heroes. When she’s accepted into the exclusive, and extravagantly funded, Ellingham Academy, Stevie is surprised but also excited. Founded in the 1930s by business tycoon, Albert Ellingham, the school is famous for its troubled past involving two murders and the kidnapping of Ellingham’s family, all still unsolved. The only clue in the case: a morbid poem sent by someone known only as ‘Truly Devious’. When given the opportunity to choose a personal project, Steve’s choice is simple – solve the Ellingham murders. But when one of the students in her class dies mysteriously, Stevie begins to realise that perhaps real-life detective work is different from what she’d expected.
Weird but Fun
Although Truly Devious is a murder mystery and it’s obviously dealing with the darker side of human nature, Johnson’s style has this wonderfully quirky tone which I find really refreshing. It’s in the plot, the setting, the characters, everything really. It’s almost as though I recognise the fact that everything about the book is a little bit too odd to ever happen in real life – a school with a dark past, full of secret passageways, hidden in the mountains and inhabited by bizarrely talented teenagers. Yet, at the same time, because it’s so fun and eccentric, almost a tongue-in-cheek look at famous mystery books, I’m more than willing to invest in the idea of all of this happening for the purposes of a good story.
Truly Devious is full of distinct and interesting characters. Because Ellingham Academy accepts such a wide range of students, similar only in the fact that they’re unique and talented, this creates a great cast for Johnson’s mystery. Aside from Stevie, there’s Ellie, the fruity artist, Nate, a moody & writers’ blocked author, David, the shifty and scruffily attractive video game designer, Hayes, the charming YouTube star, and Janelle, the genius metal sculptor, just to name a few. Seeing them all interact is rarely boring, sometimes even funny, and I look forward to spending more time with them in the sequels.
I found Stevie, herself, to be a likeable protagonist. She’s just so enthusiastic and determined. The girl has gumption, and I can’t help but admire that. I also love the fact that she has this deep vulnerable side to her in terms of her difficulties with people and anxiety attacks, but at the same time, she still maintains this great degree of sass and confidence.
The opening chapter of TD was great and grabbed me right away, but once we were introduced to Stevie, I found that it took a while for me to really get into the story. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling like there was a lot of introductory stuff – Stevie coming to school, dealing with her parents, getting the tour, introducing Stevie’s classmates, etc. Some of this info is necessary but I do wish it had been condensed somewhat. What didn’t help is that the modern mystery doesn’t start until a fair way into the book and we’re fed info about the Ellingham affair very slowly throughout the story.
One of the things traditionally expected from a good ‘who dunnit?’ is an exciting but logical resolution to the big mystery. Truly Devious, yeah…it doesn’t have that. There are two overarching mysteries in this book – the Ellingham affair and the death of Hayes. With this being the first in a series of three books, I went into it knowing we wouldn’t get closure on the 30s mystery this early. However, what I didn’t expect was that we’d only get a partial solution to Hayes’ death. I. am. Offended. Agatha Christie would never have pulled this crap. Still, I have to give Johnson credit for quite a good character based twist in the last few lines of the book which should create some great tension in the sequel.
Despite the slow warm up and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, I had a lot of fun with Truly Devious and greatly enjoyed its interesting blend of vintage mystery with contemporary YA fiction. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel to find out what happens next.