With Truly Devious, Maureen Johnson (Shades of London) provides an array of tropes familiar to the YA reader: a boarding school setting; a will-they-or-won’t-they romance; a fiercely independent female protagonist; a mystery — and then, of course, a murder. Yet, while taken individually these elements may feel a little stale, they combine here to create something that’s both original and compelling.
Johnson has long proven the ability to craft mysteries that reflect those which fascinate us most in real life. She’s provided takes on infamous names such as Jack the Ripper in the past; here, her protagonist Stevie Bell is inspired by such iconic detectives as Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. A wannabe detective, Stevie has neuroses and quirks that appear particularly similar to those of her hero, Holmes. Yet she’s wholly her own person, one who feels real, human, and vulnerable in her own right. Stevie’s anxiety is dealt with tenderly; her contradictions, as someone who wants to solve murders while also suffering from panic attacks, is sufficiently addressed on the page.
The supporting cast provides the kind of diverse representation that YA readers crave — it naturally suits the eccentric geniuses of tomorrow who populate the book’s setting, Ellingham Academy. Further, Johnson manages to explore timely, real-world political issues right alongside her murder mystery, weaving the two together in surprising and effective ways.
Truly Devious can, in a way, be read as the inverse of Johnson’s Shades of London series: Where the latter fictionalized a real true crime (in Jack the Ripper), Truly Devious invents a fictional true crime that’s grounded and realistic. What the book lacks is an origin story for Stevie — a moment in her past that motivates her, that allows us to better understand her spunky sleuthing spirit. (You could argue that a passion for Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is enough to explain Stevie’s dream, but it’s a little surface-level.) Regardless, by the time you reach the cliffhanger — that vital ending tease which Johnson always excels at delivering — the mystery at hand is all that will matter, along with the new questions that she raises. Based on Truly Devious, we can trust Johnson will surprise us with the answers. B+