Jun 11 2018

Truly Devious (Truly Devious #1) by Maureen Johnson

Okay, look, I read and review a ton of mystery series of varying quality over at Criminal Element and there is only one rule: each book should solve a major crime. The one exception to this rule that I’ve encountered before Truly Devious was also what I felt was the weakest of Louise Penny’s critically acclaimed Inspector Gamache novels, but even that pretended that it had solved the murder at the heart of its events. I won’t name which book because that would be a spoiler, but I knew the ending was wrong and was greatly gratified to find in the next book that I’d been right. But I also got to binge-read the series and know that if that hadn’t been the case, I would have been pissed (tempered somewhat by the fact that Ms Penny had built up enough goodwill with her previous books that I was willing to overlook my annoyance this one time.)

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Maureen Johnson doesn’t exactly solve any crimes by the end of TD. You get a solid lead on the identities of the people behind the historical kidnappings and murders, but the present day murder doesn’t feel properly solved: it’s mostly conjecture and then drama and then the book ends and you have to wait for the next books to find actual answers. I found that entirely irritating, especially since this was my first exposure to Ms Johnson and I don’t have any reason to believe that I’ll gain any crime-solving satisfaction from reading several hundred more pages in the distant future when the sequels publish. So if you, like me, hate it when mystery novels don’t actually solve their mysteries, consider yourself warned.

But don’t consider yourself warned off, as this is actually a really fun read in the “teenagers solving mysteries at school” subgenre. Ellingham Academy is like a real-life Hogwarts: free tuition and board (with a stipend included) on a Vermont campus where students are encouraged to learn at their own pace. The application process for the two-year school is agonizingly vague. Stevie Bell is thrilled to be accepted, especially as it means escaping from her dully conservative parents, who seem more bewildered than anything else by a daughter whose main aim in life is to solve crimes instead of the usual teenage girl pursuits. Stevie, you see, is enthralled by the decades-old mysteries of Ellingham Academy and aims to solve them all. But then one of her classmates is murdered, and suddenly crime becomes a lot less abstract for her.

My quibbles with presentation choices aside, I really like how Ms Johnson writes people and relationships. Stevie is a great protagonist, well-rounded and realistic. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with the head of security, who both encourages her intelligence while demanding she not risk her life in pursuit of the truth. They have a push and pull that rings much more truly than in other novels where the amateur sleuth exasperates the protective professional.

And, of course, there are excellent depictions of Stevie’s relationships with her parents and with her friends and classmates. The mystery itself isn’t quite as good, as far as we can tell, because we have no idea what the solution might be. I’m still annoyed that they didn’t at least solve for her classmate’s death, but I’m willing to wait for the next book because Ms Johnson has a gift for writing emotions and relationships. I just hope that the resolution is worth the wait!

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