I'm always up for a good mystery.
Stevie Bell's a junior in high school with a mission -- solve the mystery of what happened to Iris and Alice Ellingham, the wife and daughter of the founder of the exclusive private school for geniuses, Ellingham Academy.
Which means, she's gotta get into school there, right?
She scours the Internet and real life collections for every little piece of evidence -- including the well-known ditty from the kidnapper -- she can find. She presents her portfolio to the admissions committee, and when they're intrigued, she gets in. Immediately, as a reader, you're skeptical and left to wonder -- why did that qualify her for admittance? Someone clearly has an agenda for Stevie -- but is it to hide or expose the decades-old murders?
Just because Stevie gets her foot in the door doesn't mean she feels like she's one of the geniuses. She doesn't. She feels downright inferior next to the other students when she doesn't make much progress on the case right away, although she meets her best friend Vivian, a sculptor.
Once she's settled into the boarding school, she gets to rummage around in its own collection of artifacts from the case. Internet reality sensation and fellow student Hayes deftly turns Stevie's obsession into his next big viral hit and cons her into writing a script about the kidnappings / murders. He'll feature footage of a recently excavated and boarded up tunnel, a setting pivotal in the old case.
Instead, Hayes is found dead in the tunnel by Stevie and the hot, mysteriously unexplained senior, David. They check out the tunnel together when Hayes isn't seen for a while, and teen sexual sparks flare -- above Hayes' body, unfortunately.
And now it's really on Stevie to prove she's a modern day crime-solving genius.
That's where I'll stop with Stevie's sleuthing thread of the story.
Because it's told in two time periods. Interspersed with Stevie's story are the events / kidnappings as they unfold in 1936. As a result, you the reader know a few things, get information Stevie has yet to uncover, see events as they unfold in chronological order -- or do you? Misdirection is a well-used tool of all mystery writers, and in the next book, you learn there's a lot of the 1936 thread that's left out, so read super-duper carefully.
It's a great dual-story twist, and I won't ruin it -- enjoy!
SPOILER ALERT: This review spoils the end of the first book; there's no way to get around it. Don't read it if you don't want to know who the murderer is in the first book.
In the second book, Stevie has "figured out" who killed Hayes, but again, as a reader, you're left wondering, did she get the actual culprit?
And, whoever admitted Stevie to the school in the first place has yet to reveal his/her agenda, regarding the old Truly Devious case -- which Stevie still hasn't gotten much closer to solving.
Was the alleged murderer and fellow genius student, Ellie, actually capable of creating the circumstances that killed Hayes?
The water's muddied when Stevie's parents take her out of the school, and it takes mysteriously hot David's repugnantly conservative Congressman father to convince her parents to let her back in.
Ellie ran away at the end of the first book, and she's missing in the latest narrative until Stevie finds her body in the tunnels below the school. Did she get lost in the tunnels and starve to death? Or is this more than an accident?
In addition, you keep learning about the events of 1936, this time from other characters' points of view, so it's helpful to have the first book nearby to compare notes / clues. You learn the man accused of the killings is himself shot and killed on the eve of being tried, and his death is another big mystery to be solved.
And now, Stevie's working for -- or against? -- a Dr. Fenton, who's already written one book about the murders and claims to have evidence that will blow the case wide-open.
And Stevie's got her overly-complicated budding romantic feelings for David to contend with, as well.
She thinks she figures out who Truly Devious was, but now she questions if the note was ever related to the kidnappings at all.
I won't spoil all the plot twists and turns. We enjoyed these exquisitely plotted mysteries!
It had been a few months since I read the first two, when, post-COVID library closure and subsequent reopening, the final book came in.
It really was a great read. I remembered thinking the second book was more about spoiled, rich teenage angst than unraveling the 1930s murders of Iris and Alice, but this one delivered on the "cozy" mystery genre.
You learn Dr. Fenton did have evidence that would blow the case wide-open. But someone blows her up before she can spill it, by turning on the gas from her stove, and when she lights up a cigarette -- kaboom! Her nephew barely escapes the fire.
David, Stevie's I-can't-help-myself-from-being-attracted-to not-boyfriend, pays someone to beat him up and post the video on YouTube. He disappears from school before his manipulative father / Congressman can yank him, and doesn't reappear until the last third of the book, but this is a good thing. For one, it means Stevie can think.
Stevie visits the art collective where Ellie did a lot of her art, and she learns the hand she saw projected on the wall of her dorm room is far more important than she initially thought.
Interspersed with the modern mystery are POVs from the 1930s, particularly security man George Marsh, and you learn Alice was not Iris' daughter. She was adopted after she was born in Switzerland. You learn she's killed by the kidnappers while trying to make an opportunity for Alice to escape, and then they keep Alice, eventually dropping her off with a couple in a nearby valley.
With help from a classmate, Stevie discovers a journal that confirms her belief the Truly Devious poem had nothing to do with Iris and Alice's kidnappings. The journal contains rough drafts of the original Truly Devious poem / kidnapping letter by two former students at the school.
It's unclear if Stevie ever figures out what Marsh tracks down about Iris and Alice's deaths (because there's simply no way she could -- she wasn't there, and you, the reader, only know because you get his POV), but she's certain she's solved enough of the 1930s case to call it solved -- but she doesn't tell anyone.
Then a huge snowstorm moves in, forcing the school to evacuate. David shows up again, asking them to help him foil his corrupt father's latest political aspiration, a run for the presidency, and Stevie and her band of friends stay behind. They're snowed in with Ellie and Hayes' murderer.
I won't spoil the ending, just know it's great, although the character who's revealed to be the killer was not active in the books, hardly at all.
A great conclusion to the mystery and a fantastic example of a story told in multiple POVs to stunning effect!