Truly Devious, Book 1

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Truly Devious, Book 1 Book Poster Image
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Clever murder mystery at truly hip, mature boarding school.

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Kids say

age 12+
Based on 11 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The main character reads a lot of classic mysteries -- Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, etc. -- listens to true-crime podcasts, studies books on crime, and does careful, thorough research. There's much said about how to conduct a proper witness interview, how witness testimony can be flawed, and how to read subtle clues to solve cases. Some historical mentions:  H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer; the stock market crash and the Great Depression; Prohibition and speakeasies; and the anarchism movement. Plus, the science of dry ice.

Positive Messages

Shows the difference between an emotionally distant fascination with crime study and the real impact of crime: the shock, the mourning, and the loss. The school values independent thought, personal expression, and learning through games.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Stevie goes from a person who studies crime to someone who understands its impacts. Her curiosity has a cost to friendships when she crosses too many lines, but it also gets her closer to the truth. The school is diverse, with different talents (opera to video game design), different ethnicities, and LGBTQ representation and celebration. Breaking the rules also seems to be celebrated at the school, with older students instructing younger how to not get caught drinking or sneaking out. That said, Stevie doesn't feel pressured to go along with these students. She's happy being someone who studies more than parties. She also suffers from panic attacks and learns many ways to cope with them.


One death in the present time, with body of student found and classmates mourning. A kidnapping and six deaths in the 1930s, from a gunshot, a bomb, a fall, and unknown causes, with a body found. Lots of talk about a sinister letter that describes various ways to murder someone and much dwelling on the criminal mind and cases in real life and detective novels.


Same-sex and opposite-sex kissing, and a straight couple rolling around on the floor. Talk of other couples making out and innuendo about what happens in the pillow-covered study yurt. A quick discussion on consent at the beginning of the school year.


Regular use of everything from "s--t" to "a--hole" and "d--k" in heated conversation. One use of "bitch" and two of "f--k."


Social media mentioned often, with one character a YouTube star and another constantly on Twitter. Mentions of Ben & Jerry's, Froot Loops, and a few movies and podcasts.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Heavy drinking by one student, who falls over drunk more than once. On the first day, she hands glasses of champagne to new students and explains how not to get caught. The main character and her close friends don't drink more than a few sips. A few mentions of pot smoking on campus and one mention of vaping. In 1936, adults drink whiskey and smoke, with talk of many speakeasy parties during Prohibition.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Truly Devious is the first book in a trilogy by the author of the Shades of London series. The story takes place at a school for gifted students in Vermont where a kidnapping and murder happened in the 1930s. In the present, a student is also found dead. The main character, Stevie, comes to the campus to study the old crime and ends up investigating the student's death as well. She realizes in the process how death really impacts people. This is a school setting for juniors and seniors. Students drink, one heavily; they swear in most conversations; straight and LGBTQ characters kiss; and there's talk of pot smoking. Social media is heavily used -- one student is a YouTube star.

User Reviews

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Teen, 17 years old Written bySofabanana October 15, 2020

Compelling Mystery!

I thought this book was amazing and that the mystery was very well developed. I LOVE Maureen Johnson's writing and thought this book was even better than h... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bymillie.mc43 June 6, 2020

Great Book

This is a truly great book and i would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves a bit of a mystery. It does contain some dark themes including kidnapping and... Continue reading

What's the story?

In TRULY DEVIOUS, Stevie is thrilled when she's admitted to Ellingham Academy in Vermont. Not only is Ellingham a prestigious and free boarding school, it's the home of one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time: that of rich entrepreneur Albert Ellingham's wife and daughter in 1936. It seems like a strange reason to be excited, but Stevie studies crime. She reads textbooks and mysteries and listens to true-crime podcasts and hopes one day to be a detective. As Stevie settles into her dorm at Ellingham and meets the other eccentric students there, her one-day dream becomes a reality too soon. A student is found dead. Everyone deems the tragedy an accident, but Stevie's not so sure.

Is it any good?

Like the author's Shades of London series, this trilogy start takes place in a hip boarding school that readers immediately  will want to attend, even if there's a murderer in their midst. It's that cool. There's a study yurt, snowshoes issued to everyone -- it's Vermont -- a mansion, secret tunnels everywhere, and the students have fascinating fields of study. There's an opera singer, a visual artist, a video game maker, a novelist, an inventor, and an actor/YouTube star, for starters. And there's Stevie, who studies crime and wants to study everything about Ellingham Academy, where murders took place in the 1930s. The story jumps back and forth between 1936 and the present, cleverly piecing together brief stories and detective interviews from the past until a death of a student in the present pulls the reader into two complex cases at once. It also pulls the intellectually focused Stevie into an uncomfortable realization: She said she always wanted to see a dead body, and now she's facing the reality of it, with the shock and loss that goes with it. Her growth as a character adds depth to the story.

Readers will devour this mystery quickly and may be disappointed that so many loose ends remain. There's setup here that seems meant for other books in the series -- lots of time pawing through Albert Ellingham's desk tchotchkes and pondering the last riddle he wrote, for example -- making Truly Devious not stand alone as well as it could. But it does promise intriguing books to come.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Stevie's transformation in Truly Devious. She always wanted to see a dead body. What happens when she does?

  • How did Ellie break the rules of Ellingham Academy? How do Stevie and the other first years respond?

  • Will you read the next mystery in this series? What do you think Stevie will discover next?

Book details

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