Exclusive: Maureen Johnson is wrapping up her Truly Devious trilogy in style
The best-selling author will conclude her acclaimed time-hopping YA mystery series with The Hand on the Wall. It promises a pulse-pounding finish to the trilogy, which centers on Stevie Bell, a wannabe detective with traces of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes who solves murders at her haunted Ellingham Academy.
In the finale (following The Vanishing Stair), Stevie solves the greatest puzzle of all: the identity of Truly Devious, the shadowy figure who kidnapped wealthy industrialist Albert Ellingham’s family back in 1936. As crimes pile up, past and present, Stevie is sure that somehow they connect. The three deaths in the present. The deaths in the past. The missing Alice Ellingham and the now-missing David Eastman, her heartthrob friend from back in Vermont. Then another accident occurs as a massive storm heads toward the Green Mountain State. This is too much for the parents and administrators. Ellingham Academy is evacuated. Obviously, it’s time for Stevie to do something stupid. It’s time to stay on the mountain and face the storm — and a murderer.
Speaking with EW, Johnson wastes no time confirming that readers will get some answers. “In The Hand on the Wall, all answers are revealed — everything about what is happening in the present day, everything that happened in the past,” she says. “You’ll find out what happened to Alice Ellingham. You’ll find out who the murderer is at Ellingham Academy. You’ll find out how the past and the present have a deadly link.”
She also offers a tip to fans of the series eager for a full experience: “My advice is to re-read the first two books and flag the clues. Murder mysteries are a game, and I put things in there for you to find!”
Shall we get sleuthing, then? Below, Johnson has shared with EW an exclusive excerpt from The Hand on the Wall, as well as the official cover. (And be sure to check out those amazing photos of Johnson above.) The novel publishes Jan. 21, 2020, and is available for pre-order.
Excerpt from The Hand on the Wall, by Maureen Johnson
Burlington, Vermont, is a small city, perched just above Lake Champlain, a body of water that stretches between Vermont and New York. The lake is picturesque and vast, flowing up toward Canada. In better weather, there was sailing. Indeed, it was on this body of water that Albert Ellingham had taken his fatal sailing trip. And it was also from this body of water where his wife’s body was found. The city around it was once serious and industrial; in recent years, it had a more artistic bent. There were studios, lots of yoga and new age shops. Everywhere there were hints of winter sports. This was especially true at the massive L.L. Bean. Its stock of snowshoes, snow-poking sticks, massive jackets, skis, and big boots radiated the message: “Vermont! You won’t believe how cold it gets here! It’s messed up!”
Stevie was deposited in front of the store, still clutching the credit card she had been handed an hour or so before. It was more than a bit weird to be shopping for a guy she only sort of knew. Hunter was nice enough. He lived with his aunt while he went to college. He studied environmental science. He was fair haired and freckled and was actually interested in the Ellingham case. Maybe not as much as Stevie or his aunt, but enough. He had even allowed Stevie to look through some of his aunt’s files. Stevie hadn’t seen that much, but she had gotten the hint about the wire recording from them.
The rest, now, we’re literally up in smoke. All of Fenton’s work, whatever she had gathered, whatever she knew.
Anyway, now Stevie had to quickly buy a guy she barely knew some stuff. Charles had given her a short list with sizes, leading with a coat. There was no shortage of black coats, all of them costing way more than Stevie had ever spent on anything. After a confused moment of going from rack to rack, looking at the prices and fills and temperature ratings, she grabbed the first one on the end. Slippers always seemed like kind of a nonsense item, until she came to Ellingham and felt the bathroom floor on the first proper day of wintry weather. Once skin touched tile and part of her soul died, she knew what slippers were for. She grabbed some fuzzy-lined ones that sort of looked like shoes and took the whole pile to the register, where a friendly clerk tried to talk to her about skiing and the weather, and Stevie stared blankly until the transaction was over. Fifteen minutes and several hundred dollars later, she walked out the door with an oversize bag that banged against her knees as she walked. She had only a little time to do what she had come to do.
Even though it was only late afternoon, the streetlights of Burlington winked to life. There were holiday lights strung over the pedestrianized Church Street. The windows had displays of gifts. Street vendors sold hot cider and maple popcorn. There were dogs everywhere, pulling their owners along. Stevie cut a path through the crowds to her destination—a cheerful little coffee shop next to one of the street’s many yoga and outdoor shops. Larry was already there when she arrived, sitting by himself at a table in his red-and-black checked flannel coat, his expression like stone.
Larry, or to use his full name, Security Larry, was the former head of security at Ellingham Academy. He had been let go only a short time before, following the discovery of Ellie’s body in the basement of the Great House. What happened to Ellie was certainly no fault of Larry’s, but someone had to pay. Before that, Larry had been a homicide detective. Now he was unemployed but looking stern and sharp. He had no drink in front of him. Larry, Stevie surmised, was a man who had never paid over two dollars for a cup of coffee and wasn’t about to start now. Stevie felt self-conscious taking up the table and not buying anything, so she went to the counter and got the cheapest coffee they had—plain black in a plain mug, no foams or nonsense.
“So,” Larry said after Stevie sat down. “Dr. Fenton.”
“I didn’t know her well,” Stevie said. “We only met a few times.”
Stevie didn’t like black coffee, but she sipped it anyway. Occasions like this called for bitter, hot drinks you didn’t necessarily like. You just had to be awake.
“What’s that in the bag?” he asked.
“How I got into town. I did some shopping for her nephew. . . .”
“Hunter,” he said. “He’s going to live up at Ellingham for a while.”
Larry, of course, knew everything already.
“What happened?” she asked. “You have to tell me something.”
Larry inhaled loudly and rubbed at his chin.
“Fire started in the kitchen,” he said. “It seems that one of the gas burners on the stove was partially turned. The room was full of gas, she lights a cigarette . . . they said the kitchen went up in a fireball. It was bad.”
Larry did not soft-pedal anything.
“It would have been hard not to notice a thing like that,” he said, “but Dr. Fenton had a known problem with alcohol. From the number of empty bottles found on the front porch, this was still an issue.”
“Hunter told me that,” Stevie said. “And I saw the bottles. Plus, she lost her sense of smell. She told me that. Her house stank. She said the smoking killed her sense of smell.”
Larry nodded at this.
“The nephew was lucky. He was upstairs, on the other side of the house. He came down when he smelled smoke. The flames were spreading through the first floor. He tried to get into the kitchen but it wasn’t possible. He got some burns, inhaled some smoke. He stumbled outside and collapsed. Poor kid. Could have been worse, but . . .”
They sat in silence for a moment, the awfulness settling in.
“She had cats,” Stevie said. “Are they okay?”
“The cats were found. They went out through a flap.”
“That’s good,” Stevie said, nodding. “It’s . . . not good. I mean . . . it’s good about the cats. It’s not . . .”
“I know what you meant,” Larry said. He leaned back in the booth, folded his arms, and regarded her with the icy stare that must have freaked out suspects for two decades.
“Luck only holds out for so long, Stevie,” he finally said. “Three people are now dead—Hayes Major and Element Walker up at the school, and now Dr. Fenton. Three people associated with Ellingham. Three people you know. Three people in as many months.”
Stevie stared down at the oily, swirly sheen on the top of her coffee. The people a few tables over were laughing too loudly. The coffee shop music was out of place and time.
“That’s a lot of death, Stevie. I’m going to ask you something again: Would you consider leaving Ellingham?”
The words were there, on the tip of her tongue. I solved it. I solved the crime of the century. I know who did it. The words came close to the opening of her mouth, touched the back of her teeth, then . . . they retreated.
Because this was not something you said out loud. You didn’t tell someone in law enforcement that you knew who committed one of the most infamous murders in American history because you found an old recording and had some strong hunches. That’s how you blew your credibility.
And . . . while there was nothing scary about Larry or the coffee place . . . there was something pulling at her, some gut feeling that told her not to say this out loud because of . . .
Something. Something in her bones, which felt as cold and bare as Mr. Nelson. The last person she was going to tell had died in a fire.
“What is it?” he asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Since she was going to keep her biggest piece of information to herself, she looked around for the next available offering, something worthwhile. Her mind seized on the closest bit of information and shoved it forward before she could consider whether or not she wanted to share.
“David,” she said. “He got himself beat up. He left.”
“I saw the video,” he said.
“I have a phone,” he replied. “I’m old but follow along with things related to Ellingham. What do you mean got himself beaten up? And left?”
“I mean,” she said, “he paid some skaters to do it. He filmed it. He uploaded it himself, right there and then. I was there. I saw it happen.”
“Why did he do that?”
“He wouldn’t say,” she answered. “Then he said he was leaving Ellingham.”
Larry pinched his nose thoughtfully.
“So you’re telling me he got himself beaten up and uploaded the video right then,” Larry said.
“And took off into Burlington.”
“You mean just as Dr. Fenton’s house burned down.”
“Those things don’t go together,” she said. “He didn’t even know Dr. Fenton.”
Even as she said the words, something occurred to her. Had she not been so preoccupied, she would have put it together before. While David did not know Dr. Fenton, he had just met her nephew, Hunter. You work fast, he’d said. Your new buddy. I’m very happy for you both. When’s the big day?
Was David jealous? Enough to . . . burn Hunter’s house down?
No. The way he’d said it was so flat, like he felt like he had to be sarcastic about something, and seeing Hunter and Stevie walking would be just as good as anything else.
Larry put on his reading glasses and got out his phone. He watched the video of David, freezing it at the end.
“Stevie,” Larry said, holding up a shot of David’s bleeding face, “someone willing, as you’re telling me, to pay someone to do this to him and then put the footage up online is capable of lots of things. The King . . .” He lowered his voice quickly. “That family, there’s trouble there.”
“He did that”—Stevie pointed at the phone—“to get at his dad.”
“You’re not helping his case,” Larry said. “Look, I feel for the kid. He’s not all bad. I think the dad’s the problem. But he always acted out. I know he was good friends with Element Walker. I bet he was truly broken up when she turned up dead and he found the body. That does something to a person.”
It had. David had broken down completely, and Stevie, unable to process what was happening, had freaked out. She’d let him down because she could not handle it all. Guilt crept around the edges of everything—the taste of the coffee and the smell of the room and the cold coming from the window. Guilt and paranoia. She felt the thrumming in her chest, the engine of anxiety rumbling, making itself known.
“Do you have any idea where he might be?”
She shook her head.
“Have you been in touch?”
She shook it again.
“You willing to show me your phone and prove it?” he asked.
“It’s the truth,” she said. And it was.
“I need to let them know about this at the police department,” Larry said. “For his own welfare. I’m surprised they don’t know already.”
“It’s not him,” Stevie said, but this time, the energy was draining from her voice.
“It’s for the best and I’m going to do it,” Larry said. “And you need to promise me something right now—if he gets in touch, you tell me. I’m not saying he had anything to do with the fire—I’m saying he could be a danger to himself.”
“Yeah,” Stevie said. The room was starting to throb a bit, the edges of things jumping out in her vision. There was a panic attack just under the surface, and it would arrive quickly. She surreptitiously reached into her bag, grabbing at her key ring. She kept a little screw-top vial on it. She got this off with a shaking hand and poured the contents into her palm under the table. One emergency Ativan, always there if needed. Breathe, Stevie. In for four, hold for four, out for eight.
“I need to get back,” she said, getting up. “I need to meet the security guy . . . I, the person who gave me the ride . . .”
“Stevie,” Larry said. “Promise me you’ll be careful.”
He didn’t need to say what it was she needed to be careful about. It was everything and nothing. It was the specter in the woods. It was the creak of the floors. It was whatever was underneath. It was all the accidents.
She nodded, even though her head was spinning.
“I’ll keep in touch,” she said. “I’ll tell you if I hear from him. I promise. I just have to use the bathroom.”
She grabbed the bag and stumbled back toward the restrooms. Once she locked herself into the small room, she popped the pill into her mouth and stuck her face under the faucet for a swig of water. She stood up, wiped the dripping water from her mouth, and looked at her pale face. The room throbbed. The pill wouldn’t work immediately, but it would work soon.
She had done the thing she had come to Ellingham to do—she had done the impossible. But the impossible didn’t seem to matter now. She couldn’t stop someone who had murdered people in 1936.
She left the bathroom but waited in the hallway for Larry to give up and leave. As she waited, her eyes ran across the community bulletin board, with its cards for yoga instructors, massage therapists, music lessons, pottery classes. She was about to turn and leave, when something about the blue flyer at the bottom right caught her eye. She stopped to read it more carefully:
BURLINGTON CABARET VON DADA DADA DADA DADA
Come see nothing. Have a noise. Dancing is mandatory and forbidden. Everything is yum.
Burlington Art Collective Action House
Every Saturday night, 9 p.m.
You are the ticket
There was a picture of a person painted gold and blue playing a violin with a carving knife, another person with cardboard boxes on their feet and fists, and, in the background, holding a saxophone . . .
Excerpted from THE HAND ON THE WALL by Maureen Johnson. Copyright © 2020 by Maureen Johnson. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Children’s Books.