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.
Warnings: death of child
Truly Devious is a uniquely written mystery novel in that there is no mystery being solved as much as it being uncovered at the end. The main character of the novel, Stevie is an aspiring detective – she comes to Ellingham, an elite school for prodigies, because she wants to solve a cold case involving the school’s founder’s family. The story takes place in both times – the present where Stevie is going through the case and the newer murder that happens, and in the past, telling us the events leading to and right after the abduction and murder of the founder’s wife and daughter, and a student of the school.
The atmosphere of the book is quite rich – it is an isolated boarding school, there is a small pool of students, there are creepy forests and lake craters and secret tunnels. But unlike a regular novel, it doesn’t focus on the mystery; it is about the people that surround the mystery. Stevie’s development is not to look at just the mystery like a puzzle, but look at it from an emotional perspective, too. For the most part of the book, it eschews traditional mystery tropes – there are barely any clues being uncovered, and as a reader, we are not solving the mystery. It felt a bit frustrating at times, not being the one uncovering the mystery along with Stevie, nor being intimate with what she is deducing from it. She also doesn’t look at a crime scene and catalogue what was unusual or anything – in fact, it plays out more like she is trying hard to be detective. But even so, she manages to solve the present murder of one of her classmates.
On a character perspective, Stevie provides mental health representation – she has anxiety and has had panic attacks. There are her housemates, who are big mysteries in themselves. There’s the web series star who seems shady and gets murdered. The artist who has no filter, and no awareness of social constraints. The aloof writer who she befriends, and the builder who is her best friend there. There’s the coding prodigy, who for some reason, likes to insert himself into her life. All of their interpersonal relationships are as much a part of the story as the bigger mystery of whodunnit. For a pack of mostly outcasts, they don’t exactly band together either.
Overall, it is intriguing, different and certainly has you wanting for more (it ended in a cliffhanger!) so this one is recommended for mystery lovers.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Katherine Tegen Books, via Edelweiss.
Note: There is a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns, and is misgendered by Stevie as ‘her’ on two separate occcasions. I couldn’t yet verify if the final version of the book corrects this, but I thought it worth mentioning.