TRULY DEVIOUS by Maureen Johnson

truly-devious-by-maureen-johnsonStephanie “Stevie” Bell leads a life of crime — studying every aspect of it, at any rate. Most of her free time is spent reading old case reports or listening to true crime podcasts. She wants nothing more in life than to find a body in the library.⠀

She writes as much in her application letter to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school that focuses on unorthodox learning, basing itself on its founder’s philosophy of play as the best method for gaining knowledge. The grounds also happen to be the site of a particularly heinous crime committed back in the early days of the institute that was never suitably, satisfyingly solved. It’s a cold case Stevie has long been obsessed with and is certain she can crack.⠀

She is soon admitted into Ellingham, but before she even gets close to thawing the famous case, however, she gets her primary wish granted when she stumbles upon the body of a fellow schoolmate. The victim appears to have been murdered in a theatrical fashion not that dissimilar to the ones carried out all those years ago in the school by someone calling themselves Truly Devious, and this — along with other ominous coincidences — leads Stevie to believe the incidents are somehow connected, and that there is still much of the old mystery to uncover.

Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious is a riveting, utterly captivating read. A curious and effective mix between a classic Agatha Christie-style mystery and the more modern trend of true crime accounts — podcasts, in specific. Indeed, much of this book reads like a podcast transcript, which does a lot to help ground the story.⠀

A foundation that is much needed given the fact that Johnson populates the story with a cast of truly eccentric characters — think a Poirot mystery but with the residents of Stars Hollow running around. Curiously it’s the characters that prove to be both the book’s strength and weakness. One the one hand, the cast is wonderfully diverse, and Johnson has done an admirable job in terms of representation (cute queer representation! realistic portrayals of mental health issues!); on the other hand, they all have somewhat flat, one-note personalities: they are introduced at a certain level, dynamically speaking, and they rarely waver from it moving forward. In any other case these sort of hollow personalities would have been detrimental to the story, but Johnson writes such funny, witty dialogue for them (she essentially turns them into walking memes) that I can forgive it here. Murder mysteries are not traditionally known for fully-drawn, well-developed characters, at any rate; they deal with more flamboyant figures, the better to contrast with macabre misdeeds.⠀

But my favorite aspect of this novel is definitely the recounting of the Ellingham case, a narrative that is immediately arresting. Alternating between the chapters set in the modern day, the events are laid out through various forms: from website articles, to interview transcripts, to what seem to be passages of a nonfiction book (perhaps Stevie’s own report of the matter — the novel never explicitly states who is writing these). Johnson shows a deep understanding of the true crime genre with these entries, and they add an authentic air to the entire affair.⠀

Truly Devious is the first book in a series, naturally, and while I have had a hard time getting into sequels lately, I’ll be damned if this didn’t make me want to immediately pick up the next one.

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