Why ‘Truly Devious’ Was a Huge Disappointment

Cover of 'Truly Devious' by Maureen Johnson on a grey background.

When everyone’s raving, I’m usually raving with them but not this time.

God was this book a drag.

Widely acclaimed dark academia mystery Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson just didn’t do it for me. It’s a well-written book with an intriguing premise. And that’s about where the praise stops on my part.

I listened to it on Scribd and I think that’s what ruined some of it for me. I didn’t like the narrator and that’s a key part of enjoying an audiobook, in my opinion. If I can’t connect to the narrator, the story has to be INSANELY good for me to keep listening.

So why didn’t I stop listening?

As an old Romanian saying wisely puts it, because I didn’t want to “die dumb”, meaning I really wanted to see what the rave was all about. Literally, all my favourite creators from the books community had something good to say about Truly Devious.

I can appreciate a well-written story when I see (hear) it. And as far as Maureen Johnson’s writing skills go, yes, the book is good. Objectively good. I don’t want you to believe I’m trashing the author here. It’s the story itself that just…fell flat, in my opinion. 

That’s what you get for having expectations, I guess.

From The Publisher

“Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont. 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.”

In 1936, shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, 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 crimes of American history. Something like that could never happen again, of course. . . .

Years later, 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.

Truly Devious is the first novel in a murder- mystery trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson.”

 — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

My Thoughts

Let’s make this snappy and sweet:

Good things about this book: great characters with very well defined personalities, great story idea, amazing beginning (which unfortunately made me expect the whole book to be so gripping), loved the alternating timeframes, amazing use of language in places.

That being said, Truly Devious was a huge disappointment because: as it is a murder mystery series, you have to wait until you go through the entire trilogy to get some sort of an answer. Every murder mystery series I’ve read so far either has one mystery per book or gives you some kind of satisfaction as you go along, before the final reveal of the killer.

Truly Devious failed to do that, in my opinion. For most of this book, nothing happens. I can’t stress this enough. Nothing. You have the first chapter, a couple of chapters that explain the Ellingham kidnappings, and one huge plot twist about 80% in. Otherwise, nothing. Just teenagers at school and a couple of minor dodgy occurrences.

The number of times I found myself drifting off as I was listening is truly shocking for a murder mystery. But then again, that might be my fault, for listening on audio.

Do I recommend it?

If you like dark academia and aren’t that fussed about the murder side of it, sure, give it a try. But if you have huge expectations and want the satisfaction of a who-done-it story, maybe look somewhere else.

Had I approached this without any prior knowledge and without expecting a mystery, but maybe dark fiction, I would have probably enjoyed it more.

I gave it 3/5 stars because of the writing.

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Published by Eliza Lita

Founder and editor-in-chief: Coffee Time Reviews. Freelance writer and Higher Ed comms person.

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