Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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Johnson, Maureen. Truly Devious. HarperCollins, 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780062338051. $17.99 AT ***

Ellingham Academy is an elite private school in Vermont. The founder, tycoon Albert Ellingham, had a dream to bring together the most gifted students of the day. He wanted to make learning a riddle and a game and the design of the grounds mirrors that ideal. Soon after the opening of the school Ellingham’s daughter and wife are abducted. His wife eventually turns up dead but his daughter was never recovered. The only clue as to what happened was a riddle left by Truly Devious listing different methods of murder. Flash forward to the present – Stevie Bell has secured a place at Ellingham. Her Ellingham project is to solve one of the country’s most intriguing cold cases and discover what happened to Ellingham’s daughter. But Stevie finds the school more difficult than she expected, not the least of which is trying to figure out how to navigate her housemates; many of them come from extremely wealthy or eccentric backgrounds. When a student is found dead in an apparent accident Stevie discovers clues pointing to a more nefarious cause of death. It looks like Truly Devious might just be back.

No one can take away the awesome that is Maureen Johnson, but unfortunately that awesome doesn’t come through in this title. This story is told from two perspectives; the original Ellingham events and investigation and Stevie’s current experiences at Ellingham. Perhaps the title’s biggest failing is the large cast of modern day Ellingham students who are two dimensional, underdeveloped, throwaway characters who seem to be held in reserve for use as others fall away. Add to this the never ending cast of historic Ellingham characters and readers need a case book just to keep everyone straight. Unfortunately Stevie Bell is not as deep as one might hope for in a main protagonist. But the most disappointing aspect of this title is the abrupt cliff hanger ending where nothing is resolved leaving readers unsatisfied. Most of the characters are assumed white and white is a default. This title would be OK for most middle school shelves, but is not as special as might be hoped.

Carla Avitabile, San Mateo Public Library

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