Author: Maureen Johnson
Genres: Mystery, Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)
Well this was a huge disappointment. I’ve heard pretty good things about Truly Devious on Booktube and I was really looking forward to reading it. I was expecting a bit of an Agatha Christie type mystery with the secluded setting and isolated cast of characters, but this book pretty much failed to deliver on almost every front in my opinion and was extremely disappointing.
Truly Devious is set at an elite boarding school in the mountains outside Vermont. The school was constructed and sponsored by Albert Ellingham, a wealthy businessman in the 1930’s. Students are not charged to attend the school, but they do have to go through a rigorous application process to be accepted for two years – their junior and senior years of high school. Unfortunately, the school has a bit of a dark history. Albert’s wife and daughter were kidnapped from the school in 1936 and a student was killed. While someone was prosecuted for the crime, many believe the real criminals were never caught and the crime never solved.
Stevie Bell is a crime aficionado and hopes to one day work in law enforcement. She has extensively studied the Ellingham murders and is accepted to Ellingham based on her interests. However, once there, strange events start to occur that Stevie believes may be connected to the original crime and she takes it upon herself to investigate.
My biggest problem with this book was that I thought it was very poorly plotted. It’s a book about murder, it should be engaging, but somehow the beginning is incredibly slow and it took about half the book for things to finally start to get interesting. The story is told in two timelines, jumping back and forth between 1936 and present day. The 1936 storyline is probably only about 20-30% of the book and takes you through some of the events of the original crime. Unfortunately though, I found this timeline REALLY boring. For some reason Johnson takes the whole book to reveal the extent of the original crime. I really don’t think this was effective because she forces you to read all these knit-picky accounts of what happened without really telling us what happened. I don’t care what the maid and the cook were up to because I don’t even know what really happened. Plus, in the current day story, everyone knows what happened and references it, but it’s just confusing because we don’t have all that much information about it.
Secondly, the current day plot is also really boring. The first 200 pages is pretty much just Stevie adjusting to life at Ellingham and nothing really gets going until about halfway through. We are introduced to the other characters and students at the school, but it’s really not very compelling until more mysterious stuff starts to happen. Plus, Stevie just felt really juvenille to me. I’ve been starting to think that I may finally be growing out of YA, but then a really great YA book will come along and remind me why anyone can love YA. But this reminded me a little bit of Ten by Gretchen McNeil (another YA mystery novel I read earlier this year) where I kind of just felt like I was reading about caricatures of teenagers.
Mostly I think this just wasn’t clever. I feel like Johnson tried to create a larger sweeping storyline and mystery (since this is going to be a multi-book series), but it didn’t work. The plotting just really failed for me. There’s two crimes going on simultaneously, as well as a ton of characters that act really suspiciously to make you wonder what they’re hiding. But at the end of the book, NEITHER of the crimes are solved. Look, I’m all for multi-book, ongoing plotlines, but you have to give us something in this book. There are tons of mystery series with ongoing character issues, but they at least address some of the crimes in each novel. I feel like Johnson tried to weave in some different mystery elements and things to wonder about, like Janelle’s missing pass and how there was something off about Hayes and David. But overall I thought the mystery was just lacking. There was no hook. We’re supposed to wonder about the 1930’s crime, but it really needed some kind of interesting hook to get you to care, and it didn’t have that. It really just read like a classic hostage/ransom situation and there was nothing that made me wonder how the culprit got away with it.
Likewise, Johnson came up with some small things on the modern day crime that clued Stevie in that there was something else going on and led her to an accusation, but again, I just didn’t think it was that clever and I wasn’t impressed with it. There are still just so many open-ended questions at the end of this book that I really wonder what even happened for 400 pages. The author didn’t really resolve any of the plot questions, everything was left open ended, even down to the riddle from Ellingham’s desk. It’s just very unsatisfying for a reader and makes me question why I wasted time reading 400 pages of nothing. The climax was weak and literally nothing is resolved. It felt like the book just ended when there should have been another 50 pages to clue up some plot points. I think it might come down to the fact that this is just not a strong enough mystery to suspend over multiple books. It’s not layered at all and I honestly just don’t care. Why bother? Do I want to know what happened? Yes, of course, but will I be reading a second book to find out? Not likely.
So overall I think it’s safe to say I didn’t like this one. In addition to the plot being weak, I thought the characterization was also weak. I don’t think Stevie really grew at all in this book and I didn’t really learn anything meaningful about any of the characters. David pissed me off the entire book. He was rude and I had whiplash from his constantly changing moods. Plus I thought the cliffhanger was dumb. What right does David ever have to be mad about anything Stevie has done when he’s sitting in a NEST OF LIES. Janelle and Nate were pretty much the only likeable characters.
Props to you if you liked this one, but I’ll be taking a pass on subsequent books. I’m between 1 and 2 stars with this one. I definitely didn’t like it, but I don’t like rating books 1 star unless they have some really problematic elements because hey, the author still wrote a whole book, which is a lot more than I can say.