The Ellingham Academy has a dark and famous history. In 1936 Iris Ellingham and her daughter, Alice, were kidnapped. Albert Ellingham, a man so rich he can start a free private school in the hills of Vermont, tries to pay the ransom to have them returned, but to no avail. One clue to the crime is a mocking riddle received days before they disappeared, and signed ‘Truly, Devious’.
Cut to the present day and the school is still open and accepting students. One of those is Stevie Bell, a girl obsessed with the Ellingham case and who applied to the school entirely because she wants to be the one to solve it. After settling in to the school and (mostly) making friends with some of her housemates, another death visits the academy. Can Stevie solve both mysteries?
I’m not one for spoilers but I don’t think this counts and is instead more of a warning, since the answer is ‘I don’t know’. Because you don’t get a conclusion in this book, to any of it. This is the first in a trilogy, and while I think that’s fine if you’re going to solve a mystery in book one but introduce others/create a wider puzzle in the next books, I think it’s pretty crappy to string your audience along for OVER 400 PAGES and leave them with nothing. Especially since nothing happens for the first half of the book. Seriously, you could cut out so much gumph and lose nothing, but have plenty of room for oh, say, an ending?
It’s possible I am carrying over resentment from the last book of Johnson’s I read. And generally I wouldn’t return to the scene of the crime (hur hur), but this was recommended to me and I thought it couldn’t hurt to give her another go. Oof. I had similar issues here as I did reading Envelopes, mainly a lack lustre main character (who often borders on mean) and way too much padding. Stevie is dull. She’s flat and uninspiring for someone anchoring a mystery. We’re told she suffers from anxiety but other than that there’s nothing much to her. She loves true crime and solving cases (unless her best friend’s school ID is stolen and then she’s all ‘shrug, whatever’) but does so in such a lifeless way it’s hard to get enthused. She’s also extremely self absorbed and seems to have little empathy for those around her.
Not that those characters fare much better. They’re all a bit mean and weird and one dimensional. Ellie (Element, she was raised in a commune) is ‘arty’ which means she rolls around randomly on the floor and dyes her clothes while wearing them. Hayes is an actor who gets everyone to do his work for him (including Stevie which made no sense to me since hey, isn’t she desperate to solve this damn cold case?), David is…I don’t know what David is. I don’t get him at all. He’s aloof and biting and Stevie is weirdly attracted to him for reasons I cannot fathom. Falling for an arsehole happens to the best of us, to be sure, but still, it comes out of nowhere.
Then there’s the school itself, which is somehow still able to be maintained after all these years even though Ellingham is dead and the school is free to its students. Seems unsustainable. But I’d let it slide if its student recruitment made any sense. These kids are supposed to be the best and brightest but none of them (with maybe the exception of Janelle who is building…something) seems especially smart or creative.
It’s frustrating because I did enjoy the parts set in the past that deal with the kidnapping, and the interviews with those present, and after the present day murder happens things do improve, but then you’re left hanging and the thought of sitting through two more books where the story spins its wheels before we get a conclusion makes me feel ill so I’ll pass. I have some thoughts on who dunnit but I’ll wait til someone can give me a synopsis. If I still remember by 2020 that is.