The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson
Ellingham Academy must be cursed. Three people are now dead. One, a victim of either a prank gone wrong or a murder. Another, dead by misadventure. And now, an accident in Burlington has claimed another life. All three in the wrong place at the wrong time. All at the exact moment of Stevie’s greatest triumph . . .
She knows who Truly Devious is. She’s solved it. The greatest case of the century.
At least, she thinks she has. With this latest tragedy, it’s hard to concentrate on the past. Not only has someone died in town, but David disappeared of his own free will and is up to something. Stevie is sure that somehow—somehow—all these things connect. The three deaths in the present. The deaths in the past. The missing Alice Ellingham and the missing David Eastman. Somewhere in this place of riddles and puzzles there must be answers.
Then another accident occurs as a massive storm heads toward Vermont. This is too much for the parents and administrators. Ellingham Academy is evacuated. Obviously, it’s time for Stevie to do something stupid. It’s time to stay on the mountain and face the storm—and a murderer.
It’s impossible to miss The Hand on the Wall.
After two years real time (and about a single year for Stevie Bell), we’re here: the end of the Truly Devious case. Three people have died, secrets are out in the open, and it’s all come down to this. Since I first picked up Truly Devious and fell in love with Stevie’s determination, I’ve been waiting for this moment. And since The Vanishing Stair made me more curious, I’ve been absolutely dying to know the full truth.
It’s been a race against the clock on my end. Could I solve the Ellingham cases before reaching the end of The Hand on the Wall? Could Maureen Johnson successfully pull the wool over my eyes?
In a fun twist of events, the answer is yes and no to both questions. Petition for Maureen Johnson to write more mysteries, please and thank you?
“Ellingham academy was no longer the kind of place you could make casual jokes about being a skeleton.”
While the first two Truly Devious books have a somewhat more playful air despite the amount of death involved, The Hand on the Wall drops into a new atmosphere entirely. Ellingham Academy is no longer the genius wonderland it once presented itself as, and the stakes are piling higher. No one escapes the gloom hanging over the school, and when a snowstorm sets in, it’s enough to make it seem like the end is coming once and for all.
And yet there’s still a sense of wonder and enthusiasm present. The kids at Ellingham love what they do, and while the mysteries at hand pose a dire threat, no one wants to leave this place behind. There’s too much to learn, too much to explore, and parting ways would be devastating.
I really appreciated how Maureen managed to balance this, especially when you have three deaths weighing on the school and its reputation. It’s perfectly sensible for characters to be wary of Ellingham and the trauma surrounding it, particularly the students’ families. But appreciation and wonder outweigh the fear in a lot of ways, through enthusiastic independent projects, through a casually diverse campus, through the promise of something new around the next corner. It complicates the setting in a wonderful way, without detracting from the plot.
It’s the cast that brings Ellingham Academy to life, though.
Knowing this is the final chapter of Stevie and Friends’ adventures, I ended up latching on very closely to the characterization. Stevie landed at the forefront, of course, and after all she’s been through, I loved seeing how she handled it all. There are moments where her anxiety spikes in ways that hit home (there’s an episode of self-isolation and intense focus as both an info-processing and avoidance method that felt uncomfortably familiar to me), and other moments where she’s doing what she does best: solving mysteries.
Her determination to reach the end of the Truly Devious mystery is such a delight, too. Where no one else in 75 years has gotten close to the truth, she’s managed to separate and rearrange all the pieces. She’s done what no one else could, even with a cloud of doubt rolling over her from the people around her, and I adored that. I’m sure some folks will find it irritating, or too easy, or unlikely given all the other people who must have taken a crack at the case.
But Stevie did it. She saw it through, and I love that so much.
On the other hand, though, the rest of the cast didn’t get the consistent level of attention afforded to Stevie. To my surprise, we focused a lot on the events in the 1930s surrounding Alice’s kidnapping, seeing it through the eyes of Ellingham students and family friends. While this ensures all the hidden pieces of the puzzle fall into place at last, it also leaves current characters a little in the lurch. I wish so much that Nate, Janelle, and Vi had bigger roles in Stevie’s quest (though I appreciate what they did offer, especially Janelle, saintly voice of reason and engineering that she is). I also wish that David wasn’t so important, but that’s old news. He’s prickly and stand-offish, and I still don’t care for his relationship with Stevie. That said, I love where his character ends up, so it’s not a total wash in the LI department.
Where the plot is concerned, gravity is at work.
This is where The Hand on the Wall managed to capture me and gently let me down. And I do mean gently, because it could not have earned a positive rating if it had dropped me on my face. On the one hand, I adored the resolution of all the mysteries. In particular, I discovered that I had both solved and failed to solve the original Truly Devious riddle: what’s on a staircase, but never on a stair? In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t share my original guess outright. Instead, you can view it here, if you feel so inclined. We can chat about it in the comments or via Twitter DM if you like!
The point is, though, that I accidentally solved the entire series, and still failed to solve the riddle. The answers left me beyond thrilled (downright vindicated, truthfully), and I loved it.
And yet, they lacked something. Looking back, I think they were a little too inevitable. After three books, little puzzling remained for me. When the plot fell into place at last, gravity pulled it there, not the characters. The pieces floated down and clicked, rather than pulling together at Stevie’s hand. It really is the solving stage of the story, with exploration and postulation left behind. Assembling the puzzle is more important now than searching for the pieces.
At the end of the day, The Hand on the Wall still delivers.
Despite my (honestly minor) disappointments with The Hand on the Wall, I’m still delighted with the conclusion. The search for Alice Ellingham has been a twisty road, and every minute has been a joy. I’m beyond amazed that I both did and did not solve the staircase riddle, and I found the story’s conclusions to be brilliantly plotted. Every step seems so clear in hindsight, and it’s worth saying twice: I hope Maureen Johnson writes more mysteries. She’s made boarding school murders fascinating and even a little fun where they perhaps shouldn’t be, and she’s given us a heroine worth rooting for.
If you haven’t read the Truly Devious series yet, I can’t encourage you enough to start it today. What more can you ask for than murders, riddles, and teenage girls proving decades of precedent wrong? And if you have read the series, especially if you’ve read The Hand on the Wall, then we should absolutely talk.
CW: kidnapping, drug use, addiction, alcoholism, loss of a loved one (including child death), gambling, graphic injury, violence (including gun violence)