Truly Devious Summary, Characters and Themes

Penned by Maureen Johnson, Truly Devious is a YA novel that melds the intricate details of a classic whodunit with contemporary themes, weaving together suspenseful timelines that challenge the boundaries between past and present while delving deep into the complexities of human relationships and the search for one’s truly identity.

Quick Summary: In 1936, Dottie Epstein joins Ellingham Academy, but tragedy strikes when the founder’s family is kidnapped by Truly Devious. At present, Stevie Bell, a true crime enthusiast, attends the academy hoping to solve the case. While investigating, another mysterious death occurs, revealing chilling secrets down the line.


Imagine an old, rustic boarding school in Vermont. Big halls, hidden tunnels, and a vibe straight out of a vintage mystery novel.

Now Back in 1936. 

Dottie Epstein, just 14, walks into Ellingham Academy. 

It’s a dream place where your brain gets its ultimate workout with puzzles and riddles. But dreams turn to nightmares when the school’s founder, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, get kidnapped by a creepy guy calling himself “Truly Devious.” 

All we know is that he loves dramatic magazine-cutout letters and has a weird thing for discussing murder methods in poetic style.

Fast forward to today. 

Enter Stevie Bell, a 16-year-old true crime junkie. 

While she’s super into solving cold cases, she’s also battling her inner demons: anxiety, a bunch of self-doubt, and parents who just don’t get her obsession with creepy stuff. 

First day at Ellingham and she’s already got a gang. 

Nate, the brooding writer; Janelle, the brilliant engineer; Ellie, the artsy soul; Hayes, the fame-hungry YouTube actor; and David, the mysterious coder who gives her all sorts of feels.

Hayes, spotting an opportunity, ropes Stevie into creating a show about the old Ellingham murders. 

While Stevie’s down for it because, hello, secret tunnel exploration, things take a wild turn when Hayes ends up dead in one of those very tunnels.

Now begins the twists & turns. 

Stevie’s detective instincts kick in, and the deeper she digs, the more she realizes there’s more to everyone than meets the eye. Hayes wasn’t the golden boy everyone thought he was, and Ellie, well, she’s caught in a web of lies and drama.

Back again in 1936. 

As Albert Ellingham desperately tries to get his family back, plot twists have him spinning. A man says he did the kidnapping, but then gets shot. 

Truly Devious? 

Still out there. 

Then Ellingham’s boat goes kaboom, anarchists get blamed, and his daughter remains missing. Mystery level: 100.

Now comes the grand finale. 

Just when you think things can’t get any more intense, Stevie discovers clues pointing to the real identity of Truly Devious. 

But wait, there’s a helicopter, and out steps Edward King, a big-shot politician Stevie seriously dislikes. David, throwing us for the biggest loop, says, “Meet my dead dad.”

Mic drop. 

Welcome to Ellingham Academy.

truly devious summary


Stephanie “Stevie” Bell

Stevie Bell, a 16-year-old first-year student at Ellingham Academy, is our central character, drawn to the academy by her fascination with crime and mystery, and her ambition to solve the cold case of the Ellingham murders.

Stevie’s passion for crime-solving is juxtaposed with her struggles with anxiety and self-doubt, as well as her complex relationship with her parents, who find her interests and appearance puzzling. Despite feeling alienated, Stevie finds solace and identity in her love for mysteries, drawing inspiration from iconic detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Her journey at Ellingham involves unraveling a contemporary mystery while navigating friendships, especially her connections with Nate, Janelle, and the enigmatic David Eastman, against the backdrop of her quest to resolve the historic Ellingham case.

Albert Ellingham

Albert Ellingham, the wealthy and visionary founder of Ellingham Academy, is a man whose life is marred by tragedy following the kidnapping of his wife and daughter.

His character reflects the highs of achieving immense success and the creation of a unique educational environment where learning is treated as a thrilling game, to the lows of despair and loss.

Despite his wealth and influence, Ellingham’s story is one of generosity turned to grief, showing how his great love for puzzles and games becomes a small comfort in a life overshadowed by loss. His legacy at the academy and the unsolved crimes associated with his family loom large over the narrative.

David Eastman

David Eastman, a second-year student and Stevie’s love interest, presents a complex character wrapped in mystery and contradiction.

Despite initial friction, Stevie is irresistibly drawn to David, who conceals his wealthy background and true identity as the son of a politician Stevie despises. David’s character explores themes of secrecy, identity, and the weight of familial expectations.

His relationship with Stevie is fraught with misunderstandings and discoveries, revealing a person who uses deception as a tool for personal protection and, paradoxically, as a means to assist Stevie.

Hayes Major

Hayes Major, a charismatic yet manipulative Ellingham student, embodies the dark side of ambition.

As a YouTube sensation, Hayes’s charm and good looks mask a deeper penchant for using others to further his own ends, setting a precedent for conflict and suspicion among his peers.

His untimely death catalyzes Stevie’s contemporary investigation, peeling back layers of deceit and revealing the intricate web of relationships Hayes navigated—a mix of admiration, use, and betrayal.

Hayes’s story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of manipulation and the superficiality of fame.


1. Identical Complexities Exist

“Truly Devious” delves deep into the concept of identity, both in the way characters perceive themselves and how others perceive them. Dottie Epstein’s identity as a student of Ellingham Academy leads her into a dangerous situation, while Stevie Bell’s identity as a true crime enthusiast drives her ambition to solve the cold case but also results in misunderstandings and conflicts with her parents. 

Additionally, Hayes’s constructed identity as a self-made YouTube actor hides the fact that he didn’t write the show that made him famous. 

This prompts us to reflect on how they form their own identities, how much of it is innate versus constructed, and the implications of those identities in their day-to-day interactions.

2. The Consequences of Manipulation and Deceit

Manipulation and deceit run rampant in the story, leading to dire consequences for various characters. 

Hayes’s manipulative tactics in leveraging others to do his work backfires, leading to suspicions around his death. 

In the 1936 timeline, the mysterious figure of Truly Devious manipulates the entire Ellingham household with threatening letters, leading to a series of tragic events. 

From this, we can derive that while deceit might offer short-term gains, in the long run, it often results in unforeseen negative consequences, broken relationships, and even danger.

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3. Embracing One’s Authentic Self amidst Challenges

Stevie’s journey is a poignant reminder of the challenges many face in trying to reconcile their passions with societal and familial expectations. 

Despite her anxiety and self-doubt, Stevie’s dedication to unraveling the mystery showcases the importance of staying true to oneself. 

Even when facing external pressures, from her parents’ lack of understanding to the dangers lurking at Ellingham Academy, Stevie’s perseverance is a testament to the strength that can be found in embracing one’s true self. 

This encourages us to trust in their unique interests and talents, and to pursue them with fervor, even when faced with obstacles.

Final Thoughts

“Truly Devious” masterfully weaves the allure of historical mysteries with contemporary drama. Maureen Johnson’s dual timeline approach not only brings depth to the narrative but also challenges us to piece together a jigsaw of events spanning several decades. 

Overall, it’s an exhilarating read that beautifully marries old-world charm with modern-day intrigue.

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