The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?

The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.


This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.

When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.

I loved it, obviously.

At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.

That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.

I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.

David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.

A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.

Truly Devious

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, obviously…

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.


Remotely situated boarding schools for the excellent – be that wizards, vampires or, in this case, geniuses – have always been one of my favourite literary escapes. So when Maureen Johnson, one of my forever faves, presented us with Ellingham Academy – a school with ‘…no application, no list of requirements, no instructions other than “If you would like to be considered for Ellingham Academy, please get in touch.”’ – I was totally in before I even read the first page.

Truly Devious is a murder mystery split into two separate timelines. There’s Stevie Bell, a new arrival at the school, true crime enthusiast and Sherlock Holmes-in-training at present day Ellingham Academy, sticking her nose into history to see what she can sniff out there, interspersed with chapters covering those shocking days of April 1936 when the course of Albert Ellingham’s life was thrown dramatically and tragically off course. The only thing both timelines have in common is that no one yet understands what on earth has gone on.

Stevie has lived all her life feeling like a misfit. From a politically conservative family – her parents even work for a local senator who is the unfortunate embodiment of Make America Great Again-ism – and a high school filled with kids she got on well enough with, but never felt especially connected to, she’s frustrated and desperate for a new chapter of her life to begin.

Yeah, Stevie. We can all relate.

The school is populated by the sort of colourful characters you might expect from an institution for the strange and genius – Janelle, an engineering superstar who was caught mending the toaster at 5 years old; Nate, the teenage author of a best-selling Game of Thrones-type series called The Moon Bright Cycles; Hayes Major, writer and star of The End of it All, a web series about a zombie apocalypse; and, finally, David. Oh, David. Constantly on the edge of expulsion, it’s unclear what David’s talent is besides disruption – of the school, and of Stevie’s general sense of wellbeing – but all I can say is you’re always glad he’s around. It’s Maureen Johnson we’re talking about, so you can’t guarantee a happy ending for the pair, but however it all turns out I am invested.

Like all Maureen’s books – has anyone else read her Shades of London series? I was obsessedTruly Devious is totally addictive. There is a sense of foreboding over the entire narrative, the weight of the unsolved murders Stevie is at the Academy to investigate, plus that of the murder the summary promises is coming. Who will it be?

I’m not going to give it away.

All I will say I was reaching for the sequel as soon as I could get my hands on it.