#769: Minor Felonies – Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson

It has long been a belief of mine that science fiction invented the interlinked trilogy — rarely seen better on the page than in Isaac Asimov’s first Foundation troika (1951-53) and on the screen in Episodes IV-VI (1977-83) of the Star Wars movie universe.

The key word here is interlinked: a larger story told over three instalments, with the first entry being self-contained but for one lingering thread, the second ending on a cliffhanger, and the third resolving both that narrative and the larger arc. One can read The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins and walk away if the world isn’t to their liking with a completed narrative that is nevertheless expanded superbly in the novel’s sequels. Equally, had Batman Begins (2005), the first entry in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12), been unsuccessful (and, in fact, it’s not the mega-hit you may suspect), the series could have been tied up at that point with the universe open enough to exist but all the pertinent questions addressed — and, since it took three years for the sequel to come out, the casual viewer wasn’t required to remember too much in the way of details that might affect their enjoyment.

With movies especially, the need for the first instalment to stand alone comes with the consideration, as above, that sequels can be a long time coming and audiences watch a lot of movies in those two, three, more years. Books, typically, can be planned ahead of time to come out one per year, and so before long this novelistic approach was picked up by television in the likes of The Wire (2002-08) — a series at least partially written by novelists — with the more frequent release pattern of a new series every calendar year making the need for all threads to be tied up less urgent. It’s no accident that so many long-running TV shows will end a series on a cliff-hanger that potentially leaves more questions dangling than at any other point in the preceding 20-odd weeks (hell, you guys remember Lost (2004-10), right?): you’re left on tenterhooks for six months, and some of them get answered while others sprout yet more threads. It was when TV started being written by novelists that it started exhibiting the structure of novels. Who’dathought?

I’ve gone through all this because Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson is a child of both the interlinked trilogy and the TV-by-novelists age: it’s the first part of a three-book series that explores a crime which took place 80 years ago and will doubtless be solved over the trilogy’s run, but it’s also a frustratingly incomplete experience as a mystery plot because — the next in the series aleady planned to come out within a year — there is almost no closure to be found in the plot which frames the older crime. It manages to tell two equally interesting stories, one in the present and one in the past, and resolve neither of them; it ends exactly like a show that wants to be renewed, and I want you to know that up front because if you choose to read it you’ll be saved the teeth-destroying irrtation of so much left unsaid.

“Good heavens!”

The setup is this: ultra-rich businessman, movie mogul, and philanthropist Arthur Ellingham opens, in the 1930s, a school for gifted children at the top of a mountain in Vermont from which, in 1936, his wife, his young daughter, and a student are kidnapped. A threatening note written in doggerel and signed ‘Truly, Devious’ (everyone ignores that comma — referring to the writer as if they’re a Mx. T. Devious) was received ahead of time and, despite paying the subsequent ransom demands, Ellingham’s wife and Dottie Epstein, the student, are found murdered, and Ellingham’s daughter Alice is never seen again. Jump forward to the present day, and Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Bell has been accepted into the Ellingham Academy’s two-year program — thrilling not just for the prestige it implies, despite the misgivings of her conservative parents, but also because Stevie is frankly obsessed with the Ellingham Case and intends to solve the 80 year-old kidnap-murder during her time on campus.

I mean, c’mon: that’s wonderful. An isolated school in the wilds of America with a baffling murder in its past is a glorious conceit, and Johnson has a frankly magnificent turn of phrase in capturing both Stevie’s 16 year-old disdain for everything and her parents’ own difficulties with what their daughter is getting herself into:

There was a single road in [to the campus] and there was no place to park. To get in or out, you rode in the Ellingham coach. Her parents had viewed this dimly, as if a place hard to reach by car was somehow inherently suspicious and impinged on their God-given American freedom to drive anywhere they wanted to.

I gotta be honest, I really like Stevie. A devotee of classic mysteries and true crime, there’s a chance she could become a little Mary Sue-ish for how thoroughly she shrugs off the conventions of Society. It’s true that elements of this are present in the pebbledashing of Free-Thinkers that populate the Ellingham campus — we’ll get to that — but Stevie is wonderful. She’s insecure about meeting new people, gets a bit hot under the collar about A Boy, has to suffer throught the Inevitable Falling Out With Her Friends — all the usual tropes, this is a YA novel, after all — and yet alongside this she is invested with the sort of casual attitude that betokens someone of this age perfectly…

“It’s fine,” Stevie said. Because it probably was. Most things are.

…and must confront her own difficulties in a way that is treated as perfectly normal. Indeed, one of the things Johnson does brilliantly in this is skate so lightly over considerations — preferred pronouns, sexuality, disability, mental illness — which makes this effortlessly intersectional without ever feeling like pandering. A casual mention of a medication here, a dropped reference to girlfriend there, a sprinkling of the difficulty of emotional expression (“We have a limited emotional vocabulary. We’re indoor kids.”) and we move on. It’s great, and happens so easily that you almost don’t realise it — indeed, it only stands out to me because of how few of the books I’ve read for this age group do it even half as well.

Additionally, it helps that the ‘free to be who you want to be’ philosophy of Ellingham never comes across as too try-hard. Sure, it gets a little bit have-your-cake with Stevie’s housemate Ellie — raised on a commune, dyeing her clothes and herself pink in the bath, running around the campus spray-painting THIS IS ART on the many, many statues — being both a rebellious free spirit at heart and accused of “trying too hard” by introverted teenage novelist Nate, but that’s about as mixed-message as it gets. For the most part, the students here are as diverse as in any other book of this type, and conform to the expected shades of grey — the attractive, compelling Hayes, riding high on the popularity of his YouTube apocalypse drama but claiming to be on the phone to Hollywood when it’s 5 a.m. out there; Germaine Batt running an online celebrity scandal/gossip site that seeks to profit from her proximity to Hayes; David Eastman swooping in to help Stevie with her parents, benefitting from the gender privilege they imbue him with. It’s an interesting little world, and one I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in.

“Oh, good!”

I was drawn primarily by the promise of a mystery, though, and that’s where things get a little less accomplished. No doubt Johnson talks a great game, and has a wonderful overview of both the Outsider role the detective must play (Stevie finds herself increasingly fearful of being excluded from her friends — “…this felt like she was being severed from the group bit by bit” — and undertakes actions that find her far from the sympathy of her housemates and fellow students) and the external purpose of the detective in fiction:

The critical scene of the mystery is when the detective enters … The gentle old woman with the bag of knitting comes to visit her niece when the poison pen letters start going round the village. The private detective comes back to the office after a night of drinking and finds the woman with the cigarette and the veiled hat. This is when things will change.

It’s a shame, then, that the present day mystery doesn’t really get going until 100 pages of this 416 page book remain and that, as mentioned above, so little is done to actually resolve the crime. We might get the who, though that’s arguably up for debate, and the maybe-perpetrator tells us that a key part of the how wasn’t their doing…and then they run off into the night. Perhaps I should have seen this coming — an early deduction about Dawn of the Dead (1978) isn’t anywhere near as telling as Johnson would have you believe, implying perhaps a lack of confidence where the rigours of mystery fiction are concerned — but, honestly, I was having such a good time that I trusted something good would come along. I wouldn’t expect the Ellingham kidnapping to be fully resolved in this book, that’s the bigger arc, but the telling of it through interview transcripts, book excerpts, and various viewpoints is neatly handled, and the way the (presumably incorrect…) conclusions were reached back in 1936 are well explained and easy to understand come the end of this entry. There’s one thing I’m not certain about — a detail in the first ransom drop seems to be overlooked — but then maybe that’s deliberate…

For all the frustrations here, I read this in about eight minutes flat largely because of how damn smoothly Johnson writes:

It was an aggressively pretty morning, as if the season wanted to show off before everything went to pieces and the trees got naked and everything died.

…the superb visuals she invokes (that sunken garden is a piece of genius), and the clever intertwining of parallel plots. When someone breaks your heart in the first chapter, that’s usually a good sign — plus, I love the chutzpah of what is essentially a dying message in a copy of A Study in Scarlet (1887) left unresolved at this stage for the reader to have longer to pore over. I have the other two books in the trilogy (a fourth book, with what I believe to be a new story, is due out later this year) so will definitely return to find some answers; I just hope that book 2 actually provides them…

~

The Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson

1. Truly Devious (2018)
2. The Vanishing Stair (2019)
3. The Hand on the Wall (2020)
4. The Box in the Woods (2021)

4 thoughts on “#769: Minor Felonies – Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson

  1. So, 400 pages, and then there’s three, perhaps four of these before you solve the core mystery…? Man, this would have to have the solution to The White Priory Murders, Whistle Up the Devil, Death of Jezebel, and The Footprints of Satan all wrapped into one to make that pay off. I mean, I get that isn’t the point of these; like the TV shows you reference, these are more a series of enjoyable and interwoven subplots that tug you along and offer multiple cliff hangers and revelations, and you’re actually buying into the cast and storytelling. If everything ties up neatly within the spirit of the work, we’re probably satisfied, and really just wish there were more episodes.

    But seriously though… a 400 page mystery and you don’t even get the solution at the end?

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    • My understanding is that the mysteries started here are solved over the first three books — the fourth is a new story with (some of ?) the same characters…though whether it’s a single-volume or the start of a new trilogy I’m unaware.

      And, who knows? Maybe Johnson will mix it up ridiculously, have everything resolved by three-quarters of the way through Book 2 and then we’ll have 1.25 books of…something else. Seems unlikely, but she’s clearly not too worried about fitting into convention structures. I can get behind that, I just wish there was some closure in this one.

      Watch this space…

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  2. If you hadn’t inferred at the end of this that ALL THREE PARTS are available now, I might’ve flown over to G.B. and punched you out. (A nice combination of American violence and getting to see each other . . . ) This sounds too good to pass up, damn it (I mean, my TBR is soooooooo high), but I have a few qualms of the Ben Randall kind: I can understand a series where mysteries keep getting solved but some overarching mystery remains dangling (Molly murdered Perry, and Biff slayed Suzie, but who is Mr. Big???), but to leave readers dangling for, not one, but two 400 page novels strikes me as a combination of chutzpah and cruelty. The reader reviews on Amazon are uniformly excellent, and most of them bear the same caveat as yours but seem untroubled by it. And the price is right for the trilogy. So with oddly mixed emotions, I guess I’ll order it.

    You say there’s a fourth volume coming out? What does that book hope to accomplish???

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    • Well, I imagine I’ll read the next two fairly soon; I want to know what happes (always a good sign — there are single-volume books that didn’t elicit this feeling in me 😄) and don’t want to leave it too long lest I forget anything that turns out to be key. I’m thinking another round of Mnor Felonies in May and July will help see this off (I’ll need to buy some more juvenile mysteries, though…). Feel free to wait before you dive in; that Clifford Witting book ain’t gonna read itself.

      The fourth book might be the start of a new trilogy, I don’t now. Johnson writes well on a sentence-by-sentence level, and I like these characters, so whatever happens I can almost guarantee I’ll keep reading this series even if it turns into a series of Next Book Cliffhangers…

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