Title: Truly Devious (Truly Devious #1), The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious #2), The Hand on the Wall (Truly Devious #3)
Author: Maureen Johnson
Note: Below is the synopsis of Book 1, as it contains the least amount of spoilers.
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.
Very recently, I finished this trilogy with the third book “The Hand on the Wall,” and I’ve got to say–it was one the most satisfying endings I’ve read. Many TV shows and books I finished always left me hanging with one or two questions that were never answered. Perhaps they were forgotten by the creators, or perhaps they wanted the viewer/reader to predict what would happen next. Regardless of the reason, it’s constantly been a pet peeve of mine. However, this series tied all of the loose ends together in a way that wasn’t the perfect happy ending, but also wasn’t dissatisfying. Kudos to Maureen Johnson. 🙂
Also, the character development. The characters all in one way or another experienced growth throughout the series, and yet, their core values remained fundamental in the choices they made. Even the characters that were initially irritating eventually came to be appreciated for such traits that were once deemed bothersome.
The book utilized flashbacks as it followed two different story lines–one of the past, when the cold case initially occurred, and one of the present, following Stevie Bell as she tries to solve this cold case. In books like these that describe two separate plots, I normally tend to prefer one plot over the other. This means that typically, I have to force myself to finish the chapters that I don’t like all-too-much in order to get to the good stuff. This wasn’t the case as I was reading the third book (I read the first two books last year, so I don’t remember if they had two story lines). I found myself disappointed when a chapter ended because each one ended with a mini cliff-hanger, as most chapters usually do. Naturally, this meant that I begrudgingly began the next chapter/story line. However, I quickly got used to the pace of said new chapter and found myself deep into the action until it, too, ended. This cycle continued but because each chapter never failed to be interesting, I stopped being disappointed when a chapter ended and a new one began, knowing that I would love it just as much, if not more.
I finished this book in two days because I could not put it down. Perhaps this is just a confirmation of my affinity for mysteries, but I think it’s mostly just further indication to the skill of Maureen Johnson. By the time I finished the series, my sadness for the end of this journey that I began two years ago was overcome by a sense of contentedness because the series was just so well written. It’s like that Dr. Seuss quote: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I was constantly in awe of the complexity yet clarity of this story and in great appreciation for the way it kept the readers guessing (although none of my guesses were correct), the way it ended with a simultaneous ah-ha and how-could-I-have-not-seen-this-coming moment. I am just so happy to have read it and would highly, highly recommend it to anyone, especially to those who love Agatha Christie’s mysteries.