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Maureen Johnson Talks About Upcoming Series ‘Truly Devious’

Maureen Johnson Announces a New Murder Mystery Series!

Maureen Johnson has been working on many projects, such as seeing an adaptation of the book Let It Snow (co-written by John Green and Lauren Myracle) become a film, as well as finish others, such as her Shades of London trilogy. But in the midst of all these projects, Johnson announces she is working on another series, Truly Devious. The series takes place in the seemingly haunted boarding school, Ellingham Academy.

Entertainment Weekly interviews Johnson about her inspiration for the series.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired the book?
MAUREEN JOHNSON: I’ve always been a mystery addict. That’s my genre passion. I love classic mysteries in particular—straight up remote houses, impossible situations, clues, and most importantly, sleuths. The first real book I remember reading was a children’s version of The Hound of Baskervilles. I remember sitting on the living room floor, reading the scene in which Sherlock sees Watson’s reflection in the teapot. I knew this was the stuff for me. I was the kid going to the used bookstore and figuring out how to buy bags full of paperback mysteries, which I would sit and read back to back to back. I’m the person who has accidentally memorized the plots of dozens of British detective shows. This is who I am.

I think I waited for a long time to write one because I thought about it so much. But for a while I’ve been collecting up a notebook of my mystery ideas. (I’m a sucker for any that include a puzzle or a mysterious letter.) I also wrote the Shades of London series, which is a mystery. Unlike those, this one has no supernatural element. It’s straight-up sleuths and murderers.

Do you believe in haunted houses (or haunted schools)?
No, and no. But! I like ghost stories a lot, which is why I wrote theShades of London series: The Boy in the Smoke, The Name of the Star, The Madness Underneath, and The Shadow Cabinet—and a concluding volume that will be announced!

A lot of my books start while I’m working on something else. The Name of the Star—which is about the return of a Jack the Ripper-like figure in London and a specialist group of police that can see the dead—came from research I was doing for The Last Little Blue Envelope. And while I was writing the Shades of London series, I started thinking about doing what I always meant to do—a straight-up mystery. Not supernatural. The boarding school in that book lead me to create the boarding school in this book, and a different scenario for murder.

This is a proper country house mystery, American style.

Can you give us a run-down of some of the characters?
The main character is Stevie Bell, and she is the detective of the piece. Like me, Stevie has been reading mysteries all of her life. She’s tried to master the logic, the art and science of deduction. She got her chance when she was 13. She was on vacation with her family at a yoga center (hers is a multi-generational hippie family) when one of the guests died in an accident. Except Stevie realized it was no accident, and confronted and caught a murderer. She got a burst of fame from this, and got into Ellingham Academy. And it’s because of this that she wants to investigate the Ellingham Affair, a terrible series of crimes that occurred in the 1930s.

Detectives in books always have this kind of luck—everywhere they go, clever murders take place. This would be ridiculous in real life. So when one of her classmates dies, no one really believes that lightening could really strike twice around Stevie. She’s looking into an old crime that’s been solved, and now she believes a murder has happened right in front of her?

Stevie’s classmates, her friends, the Ellingham family, and the campus itself are all part of the drama.

You can find the rest of the interview on Entertainment Weekly!

Goodreads Synopsis: 

Something is wrong at Ellingham Academy: Its murderous past won’t stay in the past.

Ellingham Academy is an American institution. Students can’t buy admission, they have to earn it: these are the brightest of their generation, the thinkers, inventors, artists, dreamers, and schemers who will change the world. Ellingham is the brainchild of philanthropist and tycoon Edward J. Ellingham, who happened on a remote, idyllic spot outside of Burlington, Vermont in the 1920s, the perfect setting for his “dream school of the future.” For Ellingham, the dream ended a decade later, when his wife and child were kidnapped, then murdered, in what would become the crime of the century. Ellingham pledged everything to find the killer—he ended up giving his life.

It was an empty sacrifice: For years, the killer remained at large. He taunted the police, signing his letters Truly, Devious. Eventually, someone was caught, found guilty, and executed for the heinous crimes… but questions lingered. Why, for example, did Ellingham write these words on the day he died?

Where do you look for someone

who’s never really there?

Always on a staircase

 but never on a stair.

Every institution has its ghost stories; every school imagines itself haunted. Ellingham Academy is, officially, beyond such silliness: it is devoted to greatness, and everyone accepted achieves it.

This includes Stevie Bell, who gained her fame by solving a murder when she was thirteen years old. Clever murders don’t happen along very often, and Stevie has been struggling to find her place in the competitive atmosphere of Ellingham. Then she finds out about the decades-old Ellingham riddle: Problem solved. She’ll solve the riddle, name the real killer, and prove herself exceptional. True Ellingham material.

Her investigation into the cold case is interrupted by a fresh one. When one of her classmates, internet superstar Hayes Major, turns up dead, Stevie is the first to question the official explanation. An accident? Really? Everyone else is convinced that Ellingham’s murderous past is just that, which leaves justice up to Stevie.

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