In The Hand on the Wall, Maureen Johnson gives us a satisfying conclusion to the two mysteries surrounding Ellingham Academy which we have been following from book 1. This is of course, the third book of the Truly Devious series of Young Adult mysteries (I recently found out that there is to be a fourth book but that will be an entirely new mystery).
Ellingham Academy, the setting for the series, is a school in Vermont which was established by a tycoon in the 1930s for students who excelled or were gifted in particular areas, and which allowed them to pursue curricula that were designed to develop these interests. For our main character Stevie or Stephanie Bell, this is true crime. She is interested in solving crimes and more specifically the mystery surrounding the school itself for 80 years ago just after the school was set up, the founder Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and while his wife’s body was found, his daughter Alice was never recovered. Another student Dottie Epstein, a rather clever young girl had also disappeared at the time. And just before the disappearances, Ellingham was receiving mysterious, threatening messages from someone who called themselves ‘Truly Devious’. Now as Stevie is beginning to reinvestigate the case, deaths begin to take place in the present as well, first one student and then a second, and both had been working on a documentary connected with the old case. And where we left off last, a third person interested in the Ellingham matter died in mysterious circumstances. But was it just an accident as it seemed to be?
In this instalment, Stevie has solved the 1930s mystery (or so she thinks), discovered who Truly Devious was, but Alice is yet to be found. Also, in the present-day mystery, the threads are yet to be connected—were all the deaths simply things gone wrong or accidents? Not only that, her boyfriend or at least the boy she was interested in, David has gone missing and is miffed with her for acting at the behest of his father. Stevie is feeling lost amidst all of this and needs to get her thoughts together but a huge storm is about to break out and the school is suddenly evacuated. Another turn of circumstances, and Stevie and a small group of friends end up being the only ones staying behind at Ellingham and in this freezing place, Stevie must put the final pieces of the puzzles (both) together.
Compared to book 2, I found I got into this one far more easily (though the gap between my reading this and the last was about the same as between book 2 and book 1), and found myself absorbed back in right from the start. Like the first two books, this one also follows a dual timeline and so we the reader see events as they unfolded back in the 1930s (as also the present), while Stevie must work them out for herself, and so while she does solve the puzzle, we the reader have a fuller and clearer explanation (of the older mystery, I mean). This was something I oddly enjoyed. In fact, the 1930s mystery with all its twists and complications was the one I ended up enjoying much more than the present-day one. The solution to the latter too was satisfying, no doubt, but perhaps not something that entirely took me by surprise (I mean, not that I guessed but it wasn’t the kind that sometimes entirely blows one away, if that makes sense). The romance thread was also not my favourite but her friends were kind of fun. And I also did enjoy the Agatha Christie references (in this one it is essentially to And Then There Were None which is supposed to be Stevie’s favourite) once again.
Overall I really enjoyed the series, though and would like to read the new mystery when it comes out. What I’d have done differently with this series would have probably been to not read it as it came out but wait till they were all available because I felt with the gaps between books, I did lose track of characters and developments in the story.
Have you read this series? What did you think of it? Any other young adult mysteries that you’ve read and enjoyed? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!
Images: the first mine, and the second via Goodreads.