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My Progress:

13 / 30 books. 43% done!

2024 Literary Escapes Challenge

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35 / 51 states. 69% done!

2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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29 / 50 books. 58% done!

2024 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

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Booklist Queen's 2024 Reading Challenge

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29 / 40 books. 73% done!

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11 / 25 books. 44% done!

2024 Medical Examiner's Mystery Reading Challenge

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17 / 26.2 miles (2nd lap). 65% done!

Mount TBR Reading Challenge

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30 / 100 books. 30% done!

2024 Pick Your Poison Reading Challenge

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74 / 104 books. 71% done!

Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge

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50 / 52 books. 96% done!

Disney Animated Movies Reading Challenge

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84 / 165 books. 51% done!
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.
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