The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

Book two of the Truly Devious series flew by. I stayed up late to finish this one and it ended on a serious cliffhanger, so look for my review of book three to follow this one immediately.

At the close of Truly Devious (for which there are mild-to-moderate spoilers here), The Vanishing Stair opens with Stevie glumly returned home to her parents’ house and her public high school. The gamechanger comes quickly in the form of the despicable Senator Edward King, her parents’ hero and employer and (surprise) the father of her love interest from Ellingham Academy. King has arranged everything for Stevie to return to Ellingham – funding the trip, heightening security following a student’s mysterious death, and convincing her parents of her safety. He wants Stevie, in return, to keep an eye on his wayward son David, with whom Stevie’s not on particularly good terms anyway. She’s thrilled to be back at the school where she feels stimulated: with her friends Nate and Janelle again, working on her life’s greatest passion, the solving of the 1930s Ellingham murders, and yea, David. Quickly a second body is added to the modern Ellingham count. Stevie gains a new advisor, an eccentric academic from the local (Burlington, Vermont) university with a drinking problem and a very nice nephew. David’s moods and attitude toward Stevie continue to swing wildly, hot to cold to nuclear.

The best thing about these books is Stevie herself. She’s socially awkward but mostly doesn’t care; she’s occasionally bothered by her inability to fit in back in the ‘normal’ world (of which Ellingham is not part), but only when she remembers. Despite sometimes showing signs of a standard teenager’s low self-esteem, she generally carries on as herself, unbothered. I like her. She’s an extremely focused detective – perhaps to the point of mild self-neglect, but that’s part of a long tradition of detective types in fiction (a fact she’s aware of). Johnson’s prose is downright funny: after camping out overnight in the school’s yoga studio, Stevie “felt a waffle pattern of yoga blanket on the right side of her face and the faint smell of lavender and patchouli permeating her being. It was like she had been run over by a boulder made of hippies.” Our young hero can be a little bumbling and dense – just like a teenager, no matter how smart. I have a little less patience for David’s antics, perhaps in part because he’s a rich boy? but mostly, I think, because we don’t have the close third person window into his interior self that we have into Stevie’s. He’s a suffering kid, too, and I think if we got inside his head it would be just as sympathetic as hers.

The mystery plot remains compelling: this book focuses in on the riddle that Albert Ellingham left behind on his final day, which the title of this book nods to. We’re learning things, about the historic murders as well as the modern suspicious deaths, but not the big final thing we want to know. Again: this one ends on a mad cliffhanger; I was actually a little peeved, and even more relieved that I already had book three ready and waiting. I recommend you do the same.

Liz was (as ever) 100% correct about this one. I’m pretty sure she said she ripped through the whole series, as I am clearly going to do as well.

These books are recognizably YA in a few ways: teenaged protagonists, a gentle handling of gore, violence, and sexual content, and humor. But the plotting is not too simplified for adult readers to enjoy, and a strong female lead who is still in her teens appeals to this reader at any age. I’m a fan.

Rating: 8 cats.

One Response

  1. […] its nearly 400 pages in the same day. I loved Truly Devious and was even more entranced by The Vanishing Stair, which annoyed me with a cliffhanger the night before and sent me directly into this one, book […]

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