Truly Devious is the first in a trilogy of mysteries by Maureen Johnson, all of which explores an eighty-year-old murder and kidnapping and the modern-day girl determined to crack the case. The book centers around a prestigious private school, Ellingham Academy, built by the millionaire Albert Ellingham. In April of 1936, soon after the school opened, one of the students was found dead. Ellingham’s wife Iris and daughter Alice had been kidnapped. The only clue found was a chilling note detailing many ways to kill a person, signed “Truly, Devious”. We learn that while Iris’s body was found, Alice is still missing eighty-one years later.
The mystery alternates between present and past. In the past we see the events of the case play out, while in the present we follow Stevie Bell, an amateur detective, and her friends as they try to untangle the mysteries they encounter. Stevie is admitted to the academy because of her interest in the case and her talent as a sleuth, but in her first year at Ellingham Academy, history repeats itself when another murder occurs.
The plot is filled with puzzles of all kinds, from the riddles that Mr. Ellingham wrote daily to the ones that “Truly Devious” sent. Like Stevie, the reader is left to wonder what is a clue and what is just a random detail, and is stuck trying to decode messages like Mr. Ellingham’s last riddle, “Where do you look for someone who’s never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair.”
The school he built is as full of twists and turns, as are these riddles: he loved secrets and whimsy, and the Academy is littered with hidden passageways and false entrances. In Stevie’s time, most of these have been blocked off because of the fear that someone will get lost or that the tunnels are not stable. Stevie searches for every secret the Academy holds, not only by exploring these tunnels but also by entering the labyrinth of the past.
I wasn’t ever really sure why Stevie cared about solving this cold case. For her, as for the reader, the thrill is in the chase. While I enjoyed reading the series, it didn’t leave me wondering; once you have solved the riddle, the obsessive hold of the mystery weakens. It takes all three books to solve the mystery, but once it is over and you have escaped the maze, there is little to pull you back in. This devious series is a perfect showcase of how some mysteries rely too much on their plot to hold the reader’s attention, and fail to develop the more unsettling but longer lasting questions that are intrinsic to a great mystery.