Note: This is the third and final book of the Truly Devious series, following Truly Devious and The Vanishing Stair. This review will contain spoilers for books 1 and 2 but not for The Hand on the Wall.
From Goodreads: 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.
Before I discuss this book, I need to go back a little to my thoughts on the first two books of the series. When I first read Truly Devious in 2018, the ending left me unsettled. Nothing was wrapped up. Elly, the student accused of possibly having a hand in Hays’ death, ran away, but there’s never any proof that she was involved in the death. It felt like an open-ended misdirect, and I didn’t start to feel better about this until I read The Vanishing Stair. In the second book, that ending is fleshed out a bit, and Stevie is very clear about what she did and didn’t accuse Elly of doing. Elly did some work for Hays, but she may have had nothing whatsoever to do with his death. There’s no proof of guilt OR innocence. And when Elly turns up dead as well, that points potentially down another road, depending on whether her death was accidental or not. Another thing that cannot be easily proved. But at the end of the book, there’s a third death, and by this point, no one really feels like these things are coincidental. The Vanishing Stair ends on a cliffhanger, but still felt like a solid, concluded book and made me feel better about the entire series.
Okay. Now to move on to The Hand on the Wall. There are two mysteries that Stevie is trying to solve. First, there’s the 1936 kidnapping and murder. Then, there are the present-day mysteries and deaths. At the end of The Vanishing Stair, Stevie believes she’s solved the historical mystery, and her deductions are further fleshed out in the third novel. This part of the book: wonderful. All the clues and hints and bits of evidence are stacked up to create a whole narrative. I loved it. On the other hand, the wrap-up of the modern-day mystery feels a bit…Agatha Christie. Now, that may have been the intention, as Christie is one of the main thematic elements in the series, but to me, that made the solution feel transient and arbitrary. Let me explain.
Years ago, I read And Then There Were None. I had mixed feelings about the book, and the main thing I disliked was that the last part of the book used a long info-dump narration to explain to the reader the mystery’s solution – a solution that could not have been figured out by the reader because the necessary clues were withheld. The end of The Hand on the Wall felt like this: the suspects were gathered, Stevie makes her accusation, and then she rattles off the solution step by step. Not my favorite method for ending a mystery, but hey, I can accept it as a throwback nod to the original detective stories. The problem is that no actual proof is offered that Stevie’s accusations and deductions are correct. The solution she puts forth could easily be applied to several other characters in the book – in fact, I suspected the entire time that she would be wrong and there’d be a twist to leave her alone with the REAL killer, something like that. The historical mystery in the book is fleshed out and detailed and very specific. The modern-day mystery is a bit more like the movie Clue, where it could end this way, or that, or like this…and that felt unsatisfying. Incomplete. With many elements skirted over or ignored or glossed over.
After finishing the book, I gave it a few days and began to re-listen, to see if a second read-through would help me to feel more resolved and satisfied. After all, I reasoned, I sped through the book very quickly, as The Hand on the Wall was one of my top three most anticipated books of 2020! I was entirely willing to accept that I missed clues along the way and didn’t see how things came together properly. In the end, I did feel somewhat better about the ending. When I wasn’t looking for a last twist, I was able to see something I didn’t notice as well before. The theory that Stevie lays out could have been wrong. She worries that she might be wrong. There’s only one small clue that points her toward one person rather than anyone else. Any actual evidence would have to come later, through police investigation rather than amateur speculation. Whether or not Stevie is right is somewhat irrelevant. At the end of the day, she’s still a teenager who wants to become a detective, with no resources and only her own observation skills to go on. This, I could accept. I still felt like the culprit could have been any number of suspects and I personally prefer a different kind of mystery wrap-up, but at the same time, I got my preferences in the piecing together of the historical mystery. I can be happy with that.