Truly Devious: A Mystery-Maureen Johnson | Summary, Themes & Synopsis

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Book TitleTruly Devious: A Mystery
AuthorMaureen Johnson
GenreMystery, Young Adult
Publication DateJanuary 16, 2018


  • Stevie Bell – Protagonist, an aspiring detective who enrolls in Ellingham Academy to solve a cold case.
  • David Eastman – Stevie’s classmate and love interest, who is also interested in the Ellingham case
  • Ellie – Stevie’s roommate and friend at Ellingham Academy.
  • Hayes Major – A former student of Ellingham Academy who survived the kidnapping but has been scarred by the experience.
  • Albert Ellingham- The founder of Ellingham Academy and the father of one of the kidnapping victims.


  • Obsession with solving mysteries.
  • The effects of trauma and grief.
  • The influence of the past on the present.
  • The dangers of privilege and wealth.
  • The power of secrets and lies.


“Truly Devious: A Mystery” by Maureen Johnson is the first book of a trilogy. The story follows true crime enthusiast Stevie Bell as she begins her first year at the exclusive Ellingham Academy, a school for gifted children. Stevie’s ultimate goal is to solve the infamous Ellingham killings, which took place at the school in the 1930s and are still unsolved.

As she investigates the matter more, Stevie learns that there could be a stronger link than she initially thought exists between the happenings at Ellingham Academy now and the past. With an interesting array of characters and a page-turning mystery, “Truly Devious” will keep readers wondering until the very end.

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Truly Devious Summary

Dottie Epstein, 14, is welcomed to Ellingham Academy, a new school constructed by American industrialist Albert Ellingham, in 1936. Ellingham Academy provides a world of academic freedom, amusing games, and mind-boggling puzzles & riddles. However, a killer strikes shortly after Dottie comes to Ellingham, & Mr. Ellingham’s wife Iris and small young daughter Alice are kidnapped and held for ransom by a strange individual known only as “Truly Devious.”

Stevie Bell, 16, comes at Ellingham Academy today. Stevie is a true crime fan who feels she can solve the mystery of what happened to the Ellingham family. Despite this, Stevie suffers from worry, crippling self-doubt, & a poor connection with her parents, who are unable to understand her “unusual” interests.

When Stevie arrives into Minerva House on the Ellingham campus, she finds writer Nate, artist Ellie, engineer Janelle, YouTube actor Hayes & programmer David. Stevie swiftly becomes friends with Nate and Janelle, both first-year students, but Hayes is self-centered plus deceptive, and something about David makes Stevie uncomfortable.

Hayes encourages Stevie to help him develop a new programme on the Ellingham murders as she is an expert & could write the screenplay with Nate’s assistance. Stevie and Nate are dragged into a complicated group project with Hayes, Maris, an opera student & Dash, a technician.

Hayes is happy to have the other people of his group doing all of the work, but Stevie isn’t bothered because Hayes shows them how to enter the famed tunnel that originally flowed beneath Ellingham Academy’s constructed lake. Hayes goes to the tunnel on his own one night after they finish filming & appears dead hours later, the victim of an apparent accident with the dry ice that resulted in carbon dioxide poisoning.

Albert Ellingham & his close buddies and allies try to negotiate with the kidnappers to bring Iris and Alice back in 1936. A strange letter came at the Ellingham home a few days before the kidnapping. The letter, signed “Truly, Devious,” is made up of magazine cutouts written in the form of a poetry. The message describes how the writer could execute a murder, with the major focus on poison, hanging, bombs, & weapons.

A painter and a former speakeasy hostess were among Ellingham’s home visitors, and they appear to be hiding something from Mr. Ellingham. Ellingham makes many attempts to pay the kidnappers and recover his family, but each attempt fails. Dottie Epstein & Iris Ellingham’s bodies have been found months later, but Alice Ellingham remains missing.

Ellingham Academy is still trying to understand out what happened to Hayes today. Stevie does her own inquiry and finds that Hayes has a history of getting others to perform his work for him & lying to make himself appear good. She also finds that Hayes did not compose the musical that made him famous, and his “accidental” death begins to look like homicide. Meanwhile, Stevie is oddly pulled to David, and he acknowledges that he likes her.

When David finds Stevie wandering around his room looking for information about his family, he snaps at her and tells her that his parents are no longer alive. Stevie knits together the crime one night at a school dance & realises that Ellie, the free-spirited artist, assisted Hayes in writing his act and then attempted to get rid of the evidence. Ellie flees the scene when campus police ask her about her involvement in Hayes’ killing.

A guy confesses to kidnapping Iris and Alice Ellingham in 1936. However, before he can be punished, the suspect is murdered in a shootout, and his confession breaks apart as police dig deeper. The actual Truly Devious is still at large, and Albert Ellingham’s yacht explodes two years after the kidnappings and killings, and anarchists are blamed for planting a bomb on board. Alice never reappears.

Stevie discovers a strange series of evidence in Ellie’s room in the novel’s last scene that may reveal the identity of Truly Devious. Simultaneously, a helicopter lands at Ellingham Academy, and Edward King, a politician whom Stevie despises, comes out. Edward King is introduced as David’s “dead dad.”

The book ends with Stevie and David standing outside, watching as Edward King, a slimy Pennsylvania senator, gets out of a helicopter. David introduces Edward as his father, which shocks Stevie, as David had previously told her that his parents were dead.

The book ends with the words “To be continued“, leaving readers to wonder who is Truly Devious, what do the items in the tin can mean, what is David’s relationship to Edward King, and what will happen to Ellie.

The sequel to “Truly Devious”, titled “The Vanishing Stair”, provides answers to some of these questions, but it also raises new ones. The series is a thrilling mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end.

About the Author-Maureen Johnson

Full NameMaureen Johnson
Birth dateFebruary 16, 1973
OccupationAuthor, screenwriter
GenresYoung adult fiction, mystery
Notable Works“13 Little Blue Envelopes”, “Truly Devious”


What is Truly Devious a mystery about?

Truly Devious is a mystery book by Maureen Johnson about a teenage detective named Stevie Bell who investigates a kidnapping and murder at an elite boarding school, Ellingham Academy.

Who is the main character in Truly Devious?

The main character of “Truly Devious” is Stevie Bell, a young true crime enthusiast who enters the exclusive Ellingham Academy to look into a long-standing unsolved mystery.

What order should I read Truly Devious books?

Read “Truly Devious,” “The Vanishing Stair” and “The Hand on the Wall” in that order to follow the chronological sequence of the story.

Is there a romance in Truly Devious?

Yes, there is a romantic subplot in “Truly Devious” by Maureen Johnson. The main character, Stevie has a crush on a fellow student, David and their relationship progresses throughout the series.

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