Today I am ranking/breaking down the Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson! The books follow Stevie Bell, a true-crime aficionado with a penchant for unsolved mysteries. When she arrives at the prestigious Ellingham Academy to solve a kidnapping/murder from the year 1936, a slew of students wind up dead, confirming that the killer is still out there. With the help of her new friends, Stevie fights to learn the truth and close the door on the past. Without further ado, from best to worst, let’s get into it!
1.) Truly Devious
In first place, we have Truly Devious, the book that started it all.
In 1936, 14-year-old Dottie Epstein is invited to Ellingham Academy, a new school run by American tycoon Albert Ellingham. The elite institution offers a world of academic freedom, whimsical games, puzzles and riddles that challenge the mind. However, shortly after Dottie arrives at Ellingham, a murderer strikes, and Mr. Ellingham’s wife Iris and young daughter Alice are kidnapped and held for ransom by a mysterious character known only as “Truly Devious.”
In the present day, 16-year-old Stevie Bell arrives at Ellingham Academy. Stevie is a lover of true crime and believes she can solve the cold case of what happened to the Ellingham family. Despite this, she struggles with an anxiety disorder, paralyzing self-doubt, and a strained relationship with her parents, who do not understand her “unusual” interests. When Stevie moves into Minerva House on the Ellingham campus, she meets the writer Nate, engineer Janelle, artist Ellie, YouTube actor Hayes, and programmer David. It isn’t long before the killer sets his sights on her. Stevie must figure out who is behind it all before, lest she become their next victim.
I fell in love with this YA series after reading the first page. Who doesn’t love a murder mystery at the best of times? Let alone, one set at a boarding school in the wilderness. I really want to commend Maureen Johnson for several reasons. 1.) Her representation of a female suffering from anxiety is one of the most accurate I’ve come across. I saw myself in Stevie during her panic attacks. 2.) Her side characters, particularly Nate and Janelle, were perfectly fleshed out and multi-dimensional. 3.) The case itself was thorough, fascinating and suspenseful. You do not get any information spoon-fed to you. My only issue, and this will be a running theme in my breakdown, is that I didn’t buy the chemistry between Stevie and David. I’ve never liked him, and I still don’t, five books later!
2.) The Box in the Woods
In second place, we have The Box in the Woods. This story is set after the events at Ellingham Academy.
Stevie is expecting a boring summer. However, her plans of doing nothing after dashed when she gets a message from the owner of Sunny Pines, formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls – the site of the notorious Box in the Woods Murders. Back in 1978, four camp counselors were killed in the woods outside of the town of Barlow Corners, their bodies left in a gruesome display. The new owner offers Stevie an invitation: come to the camp and help him work on a true crime podcast about the case. She agrees, provided she can bring along her friends from Ellingham Academy. But something evil still lurks in Barlow Corners. When Stevie opens the lid on this long-dormant case, she gets much more than she bargained for.
This stand-alone mystery was truly exceptional. It gave me Friday the 13th, summer-camp vibes. Not only that, we were blessed with plenty of Nate and Janelle, my favourite side characters, and minimal mention of David, due to his move to London. The Box in the Woods was the perfect adventure to go on, after spending three years at Ellingham. Stevie continued to prove why she is the master of true-crime, new friends were made, and the stakes raised even higher in the face of a bloody killer. In short, it was pure fun!
3.) The Vanishing Stair
In third place, we have The Vanishing Stair, the sequel to Truly Devious.
The unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 has consumed Stevie for years. It’s the very reason she came to the school. But then her classmate was murdered, and her parents had to pull her out of school. Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the Truly Devious case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also must confront David: the guy she kissed, and the guy who lied about his identity as Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Where did the murderer hide? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? Who started it all and when will it end?
The sequel is excellent, but it was very David heavy and as I mentioned earlier, I do not like him as a character or a love-interest for Stevie. He is very arrogant, self-involved and reckless. They have little chemistry and aren’t suited to one another. Pushing that aside, there are some gripping revelations and twists that further the plot significantly. It really began to feel like the readers were getting somewhere in the case. I loved the ending! Let’s just say, it was cruel having to wait for the next book.
4.) The Hand on the Wall
In fourth place, we have The Hand on the Wall. This is the third and final instalment in the Truly Devious case.
Ellingham Academy must be cursed. Three people are now dead. One, a victim of either a prank gone wrong or a murder. Another, dead by misadventure. And now, an accident in Burlington has claimed another life. All three in the wrong place at the wrong time. All at the exact moment of Stevie’s greatest triumph…
She knows who Truly Devious is. She’s solved it. The greatest case of the century.
At least, she thinks she has. With this latest tragedy, it’s hard to concentrate on the past. Not only has someone died in town, but David has disappeared of his own free will and is up to something. Stevie is sure that somehow all these things are connected. The three deaths in the present. The deaths in the past. The missing Alice Ellingham and the missing David Eastman. Somewhere in this place of riddles and puzzles there must be answers.
I love that we finally learn who was behind everything. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you! Needless to say, the book has a great twist ending that wrapped everything up perfectly. The readers were given much-needed answers. Of course, Stevie and David ended up together, which was a bummer for me. Does anybody else feel this way about them? The series itself is so re-readable, even when you know what is coming. That is a testament to the author.
5.) Nine Liars
In last place, we have Nine Liars. This is the latest book in the series, which was released December 2022.
Senior year at Ellingham Academy for Stevie Bell isn’t going well. Her boyfriend, David, is studying in London. Her friends are obsessed with college applications. With the cold case of the century solved, Stevie is adrift. There is nothing to distract her from the questions pinging around her brain – questions about college, love, and life in general.
Relief comes when David invites Stevie and her friends to join him for study abroad, and his new friend Izzy, introduces her to a double-murder cold case. In 1995, nine friends from Cambridge University went to a country house and played a drunken game of hide-and-seek. Two were found in the woodshed the next day, murdered with an axe.
The case was assumed to be a burglary gone wrong, but one of the remaining seven saw something she can’t explain. This was no break-in. Someone’s lying about what happened in the woodshed. Seven suspects. Two murders. One killer still playing a deadly game.
I had such high hopes for this story. I thought it would be one of the best, given that it takes place in London. Unfortunately, it fell flat for several reasons. 1.) The twist reveal was not shocking in the slightest. Rather, it was quite anticlimactic. That is not typical of Maureen’s writing, so I was surprised. 2.) This book had barely enough Nate and Janelle. I wanted so much more than I was given. 3.) David. What more can I say? In this instalment, he treats Stevie worse than ever, displays some frightful behaviour and yet the author still tries to sell him to us as a great guy. I’m not buying it! The ending left things open for another story and I just know I’ll have to deal with him again. Sigh!
Thank you so much for reading! How would you rank the series? I highly recommend putting these books on your TBR, if you haven’t already!
Peace & Love xoxo