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Friday, January 14, 2022

Series Review: Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

I haven't done a series review in some time, which might have something to do with the fact that I haven't binge-read a series in some time! That changed in the last two months when I sped through the Truly Devious books by Maureen Johnson. I enjoyed all the novels, which together create a series that is clever, fun, and engrossing.

I read Truly Devious when it first came out in 2018, then re-read it in December since I couldn't remember more than its very basic plot. The series opener introduces true crime aficionado Stephanie "Stevie" Bell, a 16-year-old from Pittsburgh. She is beginning her first year at Ellingham Academy, a boarding school for talented kids who are allowed to study their chosen subjects with no limitations, financial or otherwise. Built by an eccentric gazillionaire in the 1930s, the school is located on a remote mountaintop in Vermont and features a plethora of hidden rooms, secret tunnels, trapdoors, and other playful hideaways. Stevie, who applied on a whim, is shocked by her acceptance there. She's determined to prove her worth at Ellingham by finally getting to the bottom of the "unsolvable" crime that rocked the school when it first opened. Not only were the founder's wife and child kidnapped, but the former was murdered as was an Ellingham Academy student. Little Alice Ellingham's body has never been found. Although a man was convicted of the crimes, no one really believed he was guilty.

As Stevie studies the case on-site, strange things start happening on campus, things that mirror what occurred back in the 30s. When a student is murdered, it sends shockwaves through the place anew. Has the "Truly Devious" killer struck again? Or is someone playing a macabre game of copycat? Stevie vows to solve all the murders, past and present. Can she do it?

Spoiler alert: Yes, she can. 

The Vanishing Stair begins shortly after Stevie solves her classmate's murder. Even though the killer has been identified, they're in the wind. Convinced Ellingham Academy is not safe, Stevie's parents pull her out of school and make her come home, where she's miserable in her soul-sucking public school. A powerful figure intervenes, allowing her return to Ellingham. For a price. Stevie makes a deal with the devil that makes her very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she's thrilled to return to the only place she's ever felt truly at home.

Stevie resumes her investigation into the murders that occurred at Ellingham in the 1930s. While doing so, she discovers the dead body of another classmate. Why were they killed? When another strange death happens in nearby Burlington, Stevie's certain they're connected—not just to each other but also to the Ellingham cold case. Can she get to the bottom of things before she loses someone else she cares about?

In the last book of the main trilogy—The Hand on the Wall—a series of disturbing events, plus the threat of an oncoming blizzard lead to the closure of Ellingham Academy. Despite the danger, Stevie and her friends do not want to leave. It's crazy to stay with a dangerous storm on the way not to mention a murderer running loose, but Stevie's convinced she can solve the Ellingham murders and figure out how everything that's happening in the present connects with them if only she can get a little more time. Hiding out so they don't have to leave, Stevie & Co. remain at Ellingham. As tension rises, putting them all at risk, Stevie pushes herself to puzzle out all the answers. Can she do it before they all run out of time?

Spoiler alert: Yes, she can.

After Stevie solves the Ellingham case, which has stumped investigators for decades, she becomes a bit of a sensation. In The Box in the Woods, she's home in Pittsburgh for the summer, prepared to die of boredom sans friends and without a puzzling case to keep her busy brain occupied. When she receives a tantalizing invitation to work at Camp Wonder Falls, she's immediately interested. It's not because she loves the outdoors (she doesn't), but because the rebranded summer camp was the site of a notorious quadruple murder back in the 1970s. The camp's new owner, an offbeat podcaster, wants Stevie to investigate the cold case so he can feature it on a show he's producing. Stevie's game.

Summoning her besties from Ellingham, Stevie and the reunited gang began their investigation. As they talk to residents of the nearby town who knew the victims, Stevie becomes more and more confused. Why would someone brutally kill four teenaged camp counselors? The kids weren't saints, but they hardly seem like the kind of people who would inspire the amount of rage that was unleashed on them. 

When one of the people helping Stevie dies in a suspicious accident, it becomes quickly apparent that someone knows what really happened the night the kids were killed and that they will do the unthinkable to make sure the truth never comes to light. If Stevie doesn't stop nosing into the past, she might be next. Can she solve the case before she becomes the next camp counselor to die? 

It's natural while reading a series to like some installments more than others. That's true of the Truly Devious books for me, but overall, it's a very well-crafted series. The characters are fresh and likable (my favorite is Nate, by the by), the mysteries are twisty and compelling, the boarding school setting is intriguing and appealing, and Johnson's prose is skilled and upbeat. I found all of the books engrossing, which explains why I buzzed through them so quickly. In every instance, I definitely wanted to know what was going to happen next. Johnson did not disappoint. 

I believe The Box in the Woods is the last book in the Truly Devious series. While it offers a satisfying conclusion to the series, it definitely leaves room for more installments. I am 100% up for that, although I'm still waiting for Johnson to finish the Shades of London series...


Although the installments vary in content, if they were movies, all would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Truly Devious with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha. I borrowed the other books from the library.


  1. Nice series review Susan! It sounds very good, and I"m glad you enjoyed it. And I love your FTC comments! I read them everytime!

    1. I like having fun with the FTC requirements :)

  2. I skimmed these reviews as I have this series on my maybe list. I'm so glad to see that you enjoyed them and I love the premise. I definitely need to give the first book a try.

    1. I really did enjoy the books. They've got so many elements I like—a boarding school setting, a dual-timeline mystery, likable characters, clever writing, etc.

  3. These sound like fun mysteries, but I get tired of the mystery always being murder. I know it is the most dramatic and suspenseful, but I want some variety.

    1. I hear you! I like all kinds of mysteries, not just murder, but the other ones are hard to find. And, I agree, people write about murder because it's dramatic and instantly intriguing.

  4. I tore through the first one, eagerly awaited the second, and enjoyed the closure in the third. But by then I was so annoyed with Stevie and David that I'm not that interested in the fourth. Is it worth reading?

    1. You'll be happy to know that David really isn't a central character in the fourth book. He's there, but he really isn't a big part of the story. I think the book is worth reading, but then, I wasn't really annoyed with their romance (although I wasn't that invested in it either)...

  5. I read the first two books in this series around when they first came out, but this was a great reminder that I need to finish the series! Nate was always my favorite character from the earlier installments, too.

    claire @ clairefy

    1. I really need to read more series this way—wait until all the books are out and read them one after the other. It's a lot easier to remember who's who and what's what that way. Plus, then I don't forget totally about the series!

  6. Sounds like fun. I’m going to put the first book on my TBR.

  7. Discovering a good YA series that you can binge read is so much fun! I haven't had that since the Divergent series years ago.

    1. I agree! I don't binge read series very often, but like I said above, it might just be the way to go since I tend to forget what happens between books in a series when they're published a year or more apart. My aging memory just can't keep up!

  8. It does sound like an interesting series. Thanks for the R rating, I will skip simply because cuss words are triggers for me.

    1. So, I actually wavered between PG-13 and R ratings for all of the books because they don't have any super graphic content. The language is milder than in a lot of YA books these days, but there's enough that I think the novels warrant an R-rating. If it's F-bombs that bother you mostly, there are only a handful per book, but there are other words throughout as well, so yeah...I wish there were more clean YA books out there, but they seem to be few and far between, especially in the mystery/thriller genre.

  9. I've read Johnson's Shades of London series, but I haven't read any of the books in this series. They do sound like a lot of fun, though, and I always love a boarding school setting. :)

    1. I really liked the Shades of London series as well, although like I said in my review, I'm still a *little* salty about the fact that she hasn't actually finished that series! Maybe someday...

  10. Oh, I recently found these books! Our library had The Box in the Woods on display when it came out and it looked really good so I got it. When I saw it was a series, I debated reading it but ended up deciding to and absolutely flew through it. I really enjoyed it, so I listened to the audiobook for Truly Devious and enjoyed it too. Haven't gotten around to the other two yet. I really don't like the amount of language in them, but the story is good, and I really liked Stevie's friends.

    1. It's a fun, engrossing series, isn't it? I could have done with less language as well, but I still very much enjoyed the books. The characters are definitely engaging.

  11. I don't usually read mysteries featuring teenagers, but this series does sound fun.


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