Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

truly devious cover

The basics

Title: Truly Devious


Series: Truly Devious #1

- Truly Devious (2018)
- The Vanishing Stair (2019)
- The Hand on the Wall (2020)

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Goodreads Summary:

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.

Here is a spoiler summary of what happened in Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson to help refresh your memory before you read the sequel.

what happened in Truly Devious?

  • Our protagonist, Stevie Bell, starts at a new boarding school called Ellingham Academy. Ellingham is a school for gifted (and, I guess, enthusiastic) teenagers. Stevie is there partly because she is super into true crime (same), and party because she wants to solve the mystery of what happened to the Ellingham family.
  • So, back in the 1930’s, Albert Ellingham started up this school. He was super into twists and riddles and games, but imagine his shock when he receives a creepy-ass riddle from an anonymous source, telling him that they have his wife, Iris, and daughter, Alice.
  • The original letters says the following: Look! A riddle! Time for fun! Should we use a rope or gun? Knives are sharp and gleam so pretty. Poison’s slow, which is a pity. Fire is festive, drowning’s slow. Hanging’s a ropy way to go. A broken head, a nasty fall, a car colliding with a wall. Bombs make a very jolly noise – such ways to punish naughty boys! What shall we use? We can’t decide. Just like you cannot run or hide. Ha ha. Truly, Devious.
  • It’s creepy, and the “ha ha” throws me off. Anyway…
  • The book opens up in 1936 with a girl called Dottie being killed in the observation room. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the Ellingham killer/abductor bumped into her.
  • In present day, Stevie starts school. She gets all the introductions out of the way, and straight away people find out that she’s into true crime and wants to figure out who did it. But how can she solve an 80 year old crime?
  • The other students are called Nate, Janelle, Kaz, Germaine, Dash, Maris, Vi, David, Ellie, and Hayes.
  • The staff that we’ve met at this point are Pix, Security Larry, Kyoko, and Dr Scott.
  • Flashback: Albert receives the letter from Truly Devious and sets about trying to rescue his wife and daughter. He calls his FBI friend, George Marsh, over, and Truly Devious calls and tells him off for calling the cops. Truly Devious wants Albert to send Marsh off with all of his money.
  • David keeps picking on Stevie and I’m sure it’s meant to be flirty but I actually find it gross.
  • Stevie is given an assignment by Dr Scott, who asks her to bring a human face to the cold case.
  • Flashback: Albert asks Leonard Nair to make his invisible ink so he can mark the money that Marsh is about to deliver to Truly Devious.
  • Stevie asks to see Dottie’s book, and notices that a few lines have been underlined. Stevie wonders if Dottie underlined it herself.
  • Hayes asks Nate and Stevie to make a script for his next project – a Truly Devious video series. They comply.
  • Flashback: Ellingham puts the money on a boat.
  • Hayes wants fog machines for his show. He tells Stevie that the tunnels have been unblocked since the 1930’s, and Stevie decides to investigate.
  • Stevie is just drifting off to sleep when a message appears on her wall. It reads: Riddle, riddle, on the wall, murder comes to play a call. A body in a lonely field, will its secrets be revealed? Or the lady in the lake? Will she give the lucky break? Alice, Alice, where are you? Won’t you give a single clue? The detective’s here. It’s time to play! Truly Devious lives another day.
  • Stevie has a panic attack, as you would, and goes to find Janelle. She calms down in the morning, and wonders if David used a projector to put the message on her wall.
  • Stevie and Janelle go to yoga. Somewhere along the way, Janelle loses her ID badge, which allows her to access various buildings on campus.
  • Stevie, Nate, Hayes, and Maris head off to a tunnel to start their shoot. Stevie picks a lock to get in.
  • Stevie investigates the observatory where Dottie was killed.
  • Janelle finds her pass in the middle of the path outside the dorms. Which is weird, because that means someone took it and then brought it back… or halfway back, at least.
  • Stevie hears Hayes speaking with Gretchen, who tells him he owes her. Hayes says he’ll give “it” to her, whatever “it” is (spoiler: it’s money).
  • Hayes goes missing. Larry goes looking for him, and Stevie leads Larry to the tunnel. They find Hayes’ body there.
  • Stevie makes sure to write everything down before she gets questioned so that she can be a reliable witness (and detective).
  • The police question Stevie.
  • David and Stevie kiss. I hope it’s just out of shock tbh.
  • Stevie speaks to Detective Agiter. Agiter asks her a tonne of questions, including how she learnt how to pick a lock. Stevie tells Agiter that Janelle’s pass was taken.
  • Stevie realises that the dry ice that they were using for fog machines probably killed Hayes. Someone broke into the workshop using Janelle’s pass and took a tonne of dry ice, which then became toxic in the tunnel as it was an enclosed space.
  • Dr Scott has Stevie go through and catalogue a bunch of newspapers that were found in the tunnel. Stevie finds Ellingham’s final riddle: Where do you look forsomeone who’s never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair.
  • Ellingham apparently wrote the riddle, and then went sailing with George Marsh. The boat then blew up.
  • The parents come to Ellingham Academy, which I guess is nice since there’s been a death there. Stevie’s parents want her to leave, but Stevie is having none of it. David invites himself along for lunch and he talks a load of nonsense to Stevie’s parents, but they seem to be won over.
  • Stevie and David are talking in his room when Pix calls David out for something. Stevie is left alone, and she starts looking around his room. David catches her on his computer and gets angry. He tells Stevie that his parents are dead.
  • Stevie tells Janelle and Nate about the person who was arrested for the Ellingham murders – Anton Vorachek.
  • Stevie speaks to Gretchen, who tells her about how Hayes used her. He basically had her doing all of his work. He also threatened a security guard, who then left the Academy. Gretchen and Hayes then broke up. Gretchen says Hayes still owes her $500.
  • Stevie realises that Hayes had been lying about how he came up with the idea for his zombie show, The End of It All.
  • Larry speaks to Stevie about Hayes. He tells her that the police have concluded that Hayes stole Janelle’s pass, then the dry ice, then accidentally killed himself in the tunnel.
  • Stevie talks to Beth, a girl that Hayes was seeing. Beth says she spoke to Hayes the night he died, which meant that the timing is all wrong. Hayes couldn’t have logged into the workshop using Janelle’s pass and spoken to Beth on Skype at the same time. Beth spoke to him at 1.20am, and the pass was used at 1.12am.
  • The students all go to a dance. It’s sweet.
  • Flashback: The local butcher accuses Anton Vorachek of being Truly Devious and the cops roll with it. Vorachek is shot before he’s about to go to trial. He starts to say “Did not…” before he dies.
  • Stevie realises that someone hid Hayes’ computer under the bathtub, which then scratched it.
  • Stevie asks Ellie questions, and Ellie freaks out. She tries to run off but instead she runs into Larry.
  • Ellie escapes.
  • Stevie searches Ellie’s room and finds The Ballad of Frankie and Edward.
  • David’s dad arrives via helicopter. He’s not dead. He’s actually the guy Stevie’s parents work for – Edward King.

That’s what happened in Truly Devious! Check out our recap list for more recaps. If you can’t find what you need, you can request a recap from us!

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