On Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious”

29589074This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Maureen Johnsonthe official “Queen of Teen,” is back and better than ever with her latest novel, Truly Devious. In what might be her finest book to date, this mystery combines the best components of YA fiction — an elite boarding school, murder, a beautifully relatable protagonist, and young love — to create a compulsively readable page-turner. Sometimes I exaggerate about good books, but believe me when I say you will not be able to put this one down until you’ve reached the end.

Johnson first showed off her mystery/crime-fighting chops in the Shades of London series, which begins with a return of Jack the Ripper in present-day London and follows a group of young people who are able to see ghosts. Each installment is brilliantly plotted and exhibits Johnson’s keen eye for detail as well as her ability to construct three dimensional characters. Her ability to shed light on the nuances of adolescence was always present in her work, but so many things about Truly Devious combine these elements and take Johnson’s storytelling to a whole new level.

In the beginning of the novel, Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has gained admittance to Ellingham Academy — a school built by a 1930s industrialist named Albert Ellingham who wanted to share his philosophy of education as a game with the rest of the world. Fifty students of all backgrounds are admitted each year tuition free to explore their niche interests with access to the school’s bottomless resources. There are inventors, artists, musicians, and gamers, but Stevie is different. Her obsession with the Ellingham affair and careful study of criminology is what got her into the school.

Stevie’s goal at Ellingham Academy is simple: solve the murder/kidnapping of Iris and Alice Ellingham, Albert’s wife and daughter, and student Dottie Epstein.

Like the Shades series weaves in and out of the streets of London, Truly Devious relies heavily on the landscape of Ellingham Academy. Situated on a mountain just outside of Burlington, Vermont, the school is isolated from society in an idyll that is perfect for the students’ pursuits. But a shroud of eeriness looms over the campus, which houses countless mysteries from the past, ones that Stevie is eager to examine.

Things take an unexpected turn, though, when Hayes — a handsome young actor who has recently found fame with his YouTube series — is found dead in an underground tunnel where key events of the Ellingham affair unfolded decades earlier in April 1936. The school community is rocked with shock and grief. Stevie sees Hayes’ body when it’s discovered by campus security, and she must finally reconcile the theories of studying crime with the reality of an untimely death.

What the police determine to be an accident soon appears like something slightly more sinister to Stevie. The circumstances surrounding Hayes’ death don’t quite add up, and she’s determined to figure out what, or who, was involved.

Investing herself in the Ellingham affair and Hayes’ death isolates Stevie from those around her. Johnson’s characterization of Stevie’s isolation and anxiety is masterful in its presentation. From the beginning, Stevie feels alien in her own family because her parents are devotees of a fictional senator who mirrors the racist and misogynistic idealogy of someone like Roy Moore. Instead of building the typical kind of familial tension into the storyline that we find in most YA novels, Johnson subtly creates a dynamic between Stevie and her parents that I found extremely moving.

Many teenagers and young adults disagree with their parents over politics and ideology. In Stevie’s case, she doesn’t understand her parents, and they don’t understand her, but they love each other deeply. The way her mom makes sure Stevie has her anxiety medication, and the way Stevie looks out for a cheap place to eat when her parents come to see her because she knows they don’t have much money shows a mutual simplicity of affection at the heart of a complicated relationship.

Stevie is also uncertain about whether she even belongs at Ellingham considering the nature of her interests, isolating her further.

To that end, Johnson builds a lot of heavy hitting material into the historical chapters of the novel. Albert Ellingham, the great benefactor, is clearly modeled after late 19th century, early 20th century titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. His magnificent wealth is legendary, funding his many enterprises, but it is also the source of his greatest loss.

When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, ransom is demanded on three occasions, all of increasing amounts, which prompts his secretary to comment that the kidnappers will always want more. Excess and decadence are hallmarks of the Ellingham lifestyle. Johnson brilliantly underscores the Gatsby-esque nature of the household and the family’s privilege with the inclusion of anarchists as dark clouds over the Ellingham dream world.

There are so many layers to this book, combining all the great elements of a YA novel and a good mystery. I gushed with anticipation as I pieced together the tiny details that Johnson sprinkled throughout the plot like breadcrumbs.

Unfortunately, I’m going to assume book two of the series won’t be released until 2019 or 2020, and I might go crazy if I think about all the possibilities that could unfold. It felt like a loss having to turn the last page of this intoxicating story, and I can promise you that whatever comes next will be even more wild.

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