Review: Truly Devious (Truly Devious, #1) by Maureen Johnson

A girl from Pittsburgh came to Ellingham Academy and she wanted to see a dead body. She got her wish.

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HarperCollins | 2018

Filed Under: Youtube as a career path

As you may have picked up by now because of all the not-at-all subtle clues I keep dropping that goes something like: “I hate YA thrillers!” and “I’ve never read a good YA thriller!” or “Please stop recommending me YA thrillers because I don’t like them!” – I am not a big fan of YA mystery/thrillers.

I’m not sure why I keep reading them other than the plot summaries and beautiful covers continue to reel me.

I’m so goddamn naïve. “This one will be a good one!” I think to myself about a book I will end up not liking at all 🤡

Is that the case with Truly, Devious?


unsure nicki minaj GIF

I’ve had my eye on this novel for a while mostly because of the goddamn plot summary. A private school famous for a decades-old unsolved kidnapping/maybe-murder suddenly sees a new murder and the possibility that the original Big Bad, know as Truly, Devious, is back to wreak havoc on the students and faculty of Ellingham Academy.

As concise as a summary can be, the blurb was actually a lot more interesting than what the plot turned out to be for my tastes. I typically hate private school shit. That setting is just an excuse to allow children to not have any real parental supervision like they would/should so they can do shit most teenagers would never fucking do. And I think I’m too old for that.

But, whatever. You all know I’m a grumpy reader.

This school is supposed to be for the most talented kids out there. Designed to allow their specific, personal talents to flourish. There are actors, singers, big brain smarty-pants(es?) and inventors. There’s a… Youtuber? And the main character, Stevie, is…. really good at true crime?

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Seriously, just call me Murtaugh. I’m too old for this shit.

Since when is being a Youtuber a talent that should be nurtured at a prestigious private school? What kind of talent is being interested in true crime? There are some very heavy beat-you-over-the-head descriptions of Stevie that make it seem like she’s the next Sherlock Holmes, but the kid literally does nothing to prove she’s any kind of savant. She’s just listened to too many true crime podcasts. And haven’t we all?

With that said, it’s safe to say that this novel started out on a bad foot with me because that whole setup is just fucking silly.

I’m also pretty tired of the trope in YA mystery/thrillers where the main character is the only person alive who is interested in or has knowledge of true crime. HELLOOOO what fucking year are we living in? True crime demand is astronomical. Everyone is into it. These fucking characters are not special anymore.

But I digress. Or no I don’t because I want to complain some more.

So characters with stupid talents get into a very exclusive private school. Fine. Whatever. Let’s go with it. Seriously, let’s go. When will something happen?

A huge chunk of the plot is basically dead air, nothing but boring teen relationship drama, tedious friendship drama, atmosphere building and a shit ton of jumping between timelines that I found choppy and lacklustre. I think because this series is specifically set up to be a continuing story between installments, where the author knew she was ending this first novel on a cliffhanger, that more time than was sunk into building up the setting and the timelines, instead of moving the mystery forward at a pace that agreed with my bad attitude.

millennial hannah horvath GIF by Girls on HBO

Character introductions felt endless and I didn’t really like many of them. David was an ass. Stevie was annoying. She was just too much. And I hate saying that about female characters, but my god kid, chill the fuck out. She tried too hard to be some kind of super detective, but she wasn’t given opportunities to prove it. It was a lot of tell, no show. Stop telling me she’s amazing and just have her do something amazing?

But the pace and plot didn’t really allow for her to reveal or solve very much.

There were some aspects of Stevie that felt honest and I liked. One was the dynamic of a liberal, open-minded child trying to break away from her conservative parents’ ideology. And the other, the portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety. She had a few panic attacks throughout the book which rang true and will likely be representation for teens (and adults) also dealing with anxiety issues.

That said, I liked the historical scenes and the cold case elements on the plot much better than I did the present-day mystery where a bunch of annoying teens were fucking off around the school.

I’m not old. But then I read books like this and the difference between being a teenager and being in your 30s is so visceral that I literally get a brand new pain in my back to go along with my side part and skinny jeans.

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Some parts read more like this was meant for middle schoolers instead of the YA crowd, and YA is already sometimes too young for me.

Then there’s the ending. UGH, the ending.

I guess it’s supposed to be a real game-changer; an unexpected kick to the crotch, so to speak. But I just found it frustrating. I read through 400+ pages for that? Get the fuck out of here. I usually really like cliffhangers because they give you something you’ve been waiting for, but then drop something totally new to shock you into reading the next book. But here, you’re given zero answers. Literally none. You barely scratch the surface of the mystery at hand. It’s 400+ pages that took me nowhere. That didn’t make me want to read the second novel as much as it made me want to not read it, because fuck that. A waste of my precious reading time.

I know a lot of people love this series, but I’m not really one of them.


Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder. 

The two interwoven mysteries of this first book in the Truly Devious series dovetail brilliantly, and Stevie Bell will continue her relentless quest for the murderers in books two and three.

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