Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson is an interesting book to study. Not because it hits all the points of a crime novel, but because it hits all the right points of a YA novel. Which, I’d argue, is more important when writing YA than focusing on the genre.
Don’t forget. Spoilers Ahead. Proceed with caution.
1. What is the Global Genre?
Truly Devious is a long form, arch-plot, realistic, drama that turns on justice and injustice (or, life and death because the justice isn’t served by novel’s conclusion). The external content genre tries to claim a seat next to other mystery, crime novels, but doesn’t quite pull it off. However, that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t work for its intended audience.
YA -a category
The more I study YA, the more I realize that it is, in some cases, a different beast compared to adult genre fiction. It’s not that I believe the genre rules shouldn’t apply. It’s that, in many cases they don’t. The audience of YA is looking for more than just all the conventions and obligatory scenes. They want character development and to empathize with who they see on the page. They want relationships, both romantic and friendly. And, they want to learn something about themselves in the process. To see that they are able to navigate the world like the characters they gravitate towards because, to them, it can be seemingly impossible to get a handle on.
I would argue that that makes YA trickier to study, but that it’s that much more important to do so if you want to write in that space. For instance, many YA books are set up to be series or trilogies.
What is more important than the genre conventions in YA? From my (modest) study:
- Maturation of some sort/growth – realizing that the world is different than you originally thought
- Characters who are teenagers (in some cases, they might not act like it, but that’s forgivable) and those that are relatable/going through some shit
- Relationships – friendships and romantic partnerships
- Inclusivity/Diversity – more and more there is a trend to make the world realistic to the one we live in (representation is important!)
- Constant change – whether saving a world or navigating a normal high school, the characters have to deal with things not always being as they seem
2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes?
As I said, Truly Devious doesn’t exactly follow all the conventions and obligatory scenes. I assume that’s partly because the book is part of a longer series. Johnson wanted to set up the character and world. To hook the readers and entice them to stick around for the followup books where she promises to (hopefully) solve the crimes.
Does that work? I’ll let you be the judge. Johnson hits all the elements to make a successful YA book. Her character suffers from anxiety and I found it strangely close to the actual symptoms I have. Stevie deals with her panic attacks and has friends she learns to trust along the way. She grows throughout the story. And, she has a potential romance with a cute boy she likes.
However, though there is an inciting crime that’s beautifully weaved in with the present day narrative, there is no speech in praise of the villain. The clues switch from the past crime to one in the present. And, the villain isn’t exposed. That means neither justice nor injustice truly prevails, rather, mystery does. In fact, the cliffhanger at the end of the novel doesn’t directly relate to either crime (as far as we know right now). For me, that meant this didn’t exactly feel like a crime novel. I’ll still read on to find out what happens, but I wanted more solutions than I got.
Once more, because we didn’t find out who the villain was conclusively to either crime, we have no MacGuffin and no making it personal. There also wasn’t a clock element, which left me feeling like the stakes weren’t ramped enough. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat to figure out who-dun-it like I have been when reading other mystery novels.
3. What it the POV/Narrative Device?
Stevie is the main character. We’re privy to her thoughts throughout the novel, even though it’s 3rd person. What’s interesting is that the narrative device includes scenes from the past as well as FBI interviews scattered in between the present-day chapters. That solidifies the original crime in the reader’s mind in a unique way.
4. What are the Objects of Desire?
Stevie is a true-crime aficionado who wants to solve the Ellingham murder(s). She’s read all the reports and studied everything related to the crimes. Luckily, she’s secured a place at Ellingham Academy in order to do so first-hand.
What she needs is to find her place in the world. To accept friendship and herself no matter what she likes.
5. What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?
I suppose you could say that injustice prevails when the protagonist cannot solve the crimes surrounding them in order to keep people safe.
However, we haven’t seen the end of Stevie’s story so I’m not sure saying injustice prevails is the correct term. I think the novel still ends in mystery, having not told the reader how the solutions to the crimes play out. I’m not sure if it’s because Stevie herself doesn’t know, or if Johnson left out critical pieces of the story to keep the reader guessing. We’ll see.
This is where the maturation plot overpowers the crime story, in my opinion. I’d say a strong controlling idea is that experience is gained when the protagonist trusts themselves and their friends to find the truth.
6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
Stevie acclimates to Ellingham Academy and has to decide what project to work on for the year.
She decides to film a recreation of the original kidnapping and murders from 1936 with a YouTube star, his worker bees, and her friend Nate, who writes, while also dealing with boys, her anxiety, and a potential new letter from Truly Devious.
Stevie starts to think that Hayes’s death was actually a murder and sets out to solve it while still looking for clues to the original crime.