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Read a full summary of Truly Devious, book #1 in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series. This page is full of spoilers, so beware. If you are wondering what happened in Truly Devious, then you are in the right place!

Special thanks to Susan Jensen, a new BSR contributor, who wrote this great recap! Visit her blog to check out what she’s reading and see what’s on her mind. See the end of the recap for links to her Goodreads and Facebook accounts.

Maureen Johnson

4.5 stars on Amazon
4.01 stars on Goodreads
Add Truly Devious at Goodreads.

Truly Devious Series
#1 Truly Devious (this page)
#2 The Vanishing Stair (recap)
#3 The Hand on the Wall (synopsis)
#4 The Box in the Woods (synopsis)
#5 Nine Liars (synopsis)
#6 Untitled (Goodreads)

***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****

What happened in Truly Devious?

In the early 1930s, a wealthy and eccentric industrialist named Albert Ellingham bought land on a remote mountain in Vermont. Not only did he build a grand home for his family to live in there, but he also built a school he named Ellingham Academy.

Because Albert loved puzzles and games, he had the buildings fitted out with secret passageways, hidden tunnels, fake windows, doors to nowhere, etc. He invited a hand-selected group of students to come to the school, where they could study their various areas of expertise however they chose, spending any amount they needed.

In 1936, Albert received a sinister riddle in the mail that was signed “Truly, Devious.” Using letters cut out of magazines, it seemed to suggest someone would be killed. On a foggy day in April, Albert’s wife and daughter—Iris and Alice—went for a drive and did not return. Someone then called the house and told Albert they had Iris and Alice. The kidnapper instructed Albert not to call the police and to bring $25,000 in cash out to the island on his property.

Albert gathered all the money he could find on short notice—a little over $23,000—and took it to the island. The kidnapper, whose face was covered and who seemed to be masking an accent, told him to open the domed observatory—a private retreat Albert had built on the island—and then throw the money down a hatch. Albert did so, after which the kidnapper hit him on the head with something and everything went black.

Desperate to save his wife and daughter, Albert called in George Marsh, his close friend and a former New York police detective. When the kidnapper called again, he instructed Albert to gather up all the jewelry, cash, and valuables he had and have George bring them to a specified location in exchange for the safe return of Iris and Alice.

George returned with bruises all over his face. He said he was ambushed by the kidnappers and the money was taken from him. Iris and Alice were nowhere to be seen. George told Albert the kidnappers wanted more money delivered within 24 hours.

The money was gathered, and Albert and George took it out to a rocky point over the lake. The kidnappers were in a boat below and instructed the men to drop the bags of money. They did, and the people in the boat drove off. Again, there was no sign of Iris or Alice.

Soon after, the body of Dolores “Dottie” Epstein, an Ellingham Academy student who had gone missing, was found in a local field. She had come upon a mysterious person in the dome on the island previous to the kidnapping and was killed by them in the dome. Three weeks later, the body of Iris Ellingham washed up on the beach. Alice was never found.

A man in a nearby town, Anton Vorachek, was discovered to have marked bills from the Ellingham kidnapping. When questioned by the police, he confessed to murdering Iris Ellingham and Dottie Epstein, even though little about his confession made sense. At his sentencing, he was shot and died from his wounds.

In 1938, Albert died in an explosion on his boat. The mystery of who kidnapped Iris and Alice and what happened to Alice was never really solved. It was generally believed that, in spite of his confession, Anton Vorachek wasn’t really guilty.

In the present day, 16-year-old Stephanie “Stevie” Bell, a true crime aficionado from Pittsburgh, arrives at Ellingham Academy for her first year of study. An expert on the Ellingham mystery, it is her goal to solve it once and for all. She is assigned to Minerva House with an assortment of other students, including Hayes Major, a self-centered actor famous for writing and starring in an Internet horror film series.

When Stevie meets with her advisor, he shows her the attic of Albert Ellingham’s house and asks her to catalog the items within. He also tells her she needs to come up with a project about her chosen area of study: the Ellingham mystery.

Hayes later approaches Stevie with an idea that can help them both with their projects. He asks Stevie to write a script about the mystery that he can then make into a movie. Stevie agrees to help and enlists her housemate, Nate Fisher, who is known for writing a best-selling fantasy novel at 14 years old. Hayes wants to film the movie in the recently unearthed and very off-limits tunnel that runs under Ellingham Academy, the one that leads to Albert Ellingham’s dome.

After studying materials related to the Ellingham mystery late into the night, Stevie is awakened from sleep. A poem like the “Truly Devious” one sent to Albert Ellingham in 1936 is projected on her dorm room wall. The riddle seems to suggest that a boy will be killed.

Almost as soon as Stevie reads it, the projection disappears. She jumps out of bed and looks out her window, but she can see no one. Stevie has a panic attack and questions whether she really saw anything at all. She can’t decide if the riddle was a dream or not. She also can’t remember the exact wording of the riddle.

The next day, Stevie and her housemate, Janelle Franklin, go to their yoga class. When they come out, Janelle is alarmed to discover her pass—which allows her access to the art barn—is missing. Stevie saw her secure it inside her bag, so the girls know it didn’t just fall out. They decide someone stole it but can’t figure out why.

Stevie, Nate, Hayes, and the other kids working on Hayes’ movie go to the tunnel. Stevie picks the padlock on the hatch that leads to the tunnel. She explores the tunnel and climbs up into Albert Ellingham’s domed observatory. There is nothing in the room. Stevie helps the other kids film the movie, then all of them leave.

The next morning, Janelle finds her missing pass sitting on the path outside the dorm building where she and Stevie live. Stevie and Nate go back to the tunnel to continue filming Hayes’ movie. During a break in filming, Stevie overhears Hayes arguing with Gretchen, his former girlfriend. She accuses him of not paying back money he owes her. She threatens to expose him to Germaine Batt, a student who writes a celebrity gossip blog.

Stevie and her friends grow concerned when Hayes doesn’t show up for dinner that evening. He’s also not answering his phone. Stevie and several others return to the tunnel, but Hayes cannot be found. When he doesn’t return to his dorm by curfew, Stevie tells their house mother he was last seen in the tunnels. A group goes to the tunnels, where Stevie discovers Hayes’ dead body.

The police come to Ellingham Academy. They interview Stevie and her friends. As Stevie deals with shock after Hayes’ death, David Eastman—an enigmatic computer programmer—comes to see her in her room. They make out until their house mother interrupts them.

After Stevie is interviewed again, this time by detectives, she realizes Hayes Major might have died because of the dry ice he used as a special effect in his movie. If it was used in a closed space, like a tunnel, and Hayes breathed it in, it could have caused his death. Did Hayes accidentally inhale a toxic chemical?

If someone stole the dry ice—which was kept in the locked art barn and only accessible by a special pass, like the one Janelle possesses—did that mean Hayes was purposely trapped in the tunnel with dry ice? Was Hayes murdered? Stevie takes her theory to Larry, Ellingham Academy’s security guard, and it is confirmed Janelle’s pass was used to enter the barn at 1:00 AM on the day Hayes died.

Later, Stevie is in the attic of Albert Ellingham’s house when she finds a riddle dated the day Albert died. It says, “Where do you look for someone who’s never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair.” No solution is given.

After Hayes’ death, Stevie’s parents are concerned about her safety at Ellingham Academy. They come to Vermont to check on her. Shockingly, David—who is uncharacteristically dressed in preppy clothes and behaving like a perfect gentleman—pushes his way into the family’s restaurant lunch. Stevie’s parents are charmed by David’s act and allow Stevie to stay at the school.

Afterward, Stevie visits David in his room. They are making out again and are again interrupted by their house mother. Not wanting to get caught again, Stevie hides in David’s closet. When David leaves with the house mother, she explores his room. She picks up his laptop and starts to open it up when David returns. He is angry Stevie is snooping and tells her to get out of his room. David avoids her after that.

Stevie seeks out Gretchen, Hayes’ ex-girlfriend. She tells Stevie Hayes borrowed $500 from her and never paid back. She also says she used to write school papers for Hayes, who always seemed to be able to manipulate others into doing his work for him. Gretchen describes him as a cold user who didn’t mind stepping on others to get ahead. Stevie comes to the conclusion there’s no way Hayes wrote the horror movie series for which he was so famous.

Stevie offers to box up the things from Hayes’ dorm room for his parents. While in his room, she looks at his computer and discovers the main files relating to his horror movie series were created while he was at Ellingham, not in Florida as he claimed.

Later, Stevie does a video chat with Beth Brave, one of Hayes’ girlfriends. She confirms she was video chatting with Hayes at the same time someone stole dry ice from the art barn, meaning he did not take the dry ice.

A scratch on her hand that Stevie got from a bathroom fixture on her first day at Ellingham leads to a realization about Hayes’ laptop. After looking at photos, she realizes Hayes’ laptop had a large scratch on it that indicated someone had taken it and hidden it under the bathtub in Minerva House. Stevie decides it must have been her housemate Element “Ellie” Walker. She realizes that Ellie used the $500 Gretchen gave Hayes to buy her prized saxophone and that Hayes paid Ellie to write his now-famous horror movie. Stevie accuses Ellie of killing Hayes, who was about to get a lucrative film deal with a famous director because of Ellie’s work.

How did Truly Devious end?

Ellie tries to run out of the room, but she is caught by Larry, the security guard. She is then detained in Albert Ellingham’s office in the Great House while the police are called. Using a secret panel in the wall, Ellie escapes. The police cannot find her.

In the ensuing chaos, Stevie goes into Ellie’s dorm room. Beneath the quilt on Ellie’s bed, she finds an old tin can. Inside, she discovers a disintegrating white feather, a torn piece of cloth with beading on it, a gold tube of lipstick, a rhinestone clip, and a pillbox shaped like a tiny shoe. She also finds a piece of paper with a poem-in-progress called “The Ballad of Frankie and Edward” that talks about two people playing a game against “the king [who] was a joker who lived on a hill.”

There’s also a series of old photographs of two teenagers, a boy and a girl, posing like Bonnie and Clyde. A date on the back of one indicates it was taken in 1935. Stuck between two of the photos is a word—”us”—clipped out of a magazine. Stevie decides these kids, who must have written the unfinished poem that seemed to be about Albert Ellingham, had to have been students at Ellingham Academy. They also had to have been behind the Truly Devious letter.

Before Stevie can really process all this, she hears the whirring of a helicopter. When she and David go outside, Stevie is shocked to see Edward King—the slimy Pennsylvania senator with whom her parents are enamored and for whom they have been tirelessly campaigning—getting out of the aircraft. When David introduces him as his father, Stevie is even more stunned as David had told her his parents were dead. The book ends with the words “To be continued…”

There you go! That’s what happened in Truly Devious. We hope you enjoyed this Truly Devious summary with spoilers.

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truly devious
the vanishing stair
the hand on the wall
the box in the woods
nine liars

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4 thoughts on “What happened in Truly Devious? (Truly Devious #1)”

  1. Thank you! This was so helpful. I read this book a while back and am looking forward to reading the second book but I couldn’t remember all the details of what happened in the book and didn’t want to re-read it. This helped a lot! 😊

  2. Thank you! This was so helpful. I read this book a while back and am looking forward to reading the second book but I couldn’t remember all the details of what happened in the book and didn’t want to re-read it. This helped a lot! 😊😊

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