The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson

On a day that I claimed to be overwhelmed with the student papers I had to grade, I also managed to wake up and immediately begin this book… and then stay up til midnight finishing 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 three. My main goal today is not to read a whole book by accident when I’m supposed to be working.

The Hand on the Wall is book three of three in the Truly Devious series – but the Stevie Bell series continues for two more books, a bit confusingly. The Truly Devious murders themselves (aka the crime of the century, the murder/kidnapping at Ellingham Academy in the 1930s) are wrapped up in this book, but newly minted detective hero Stevie apparently continues on. (I haven’t read book four yet! I’m staying strong.) This installment sees the advancing of Stevie’s investigations and her modest decline in terms of personal hygiene and nutrition; the beginning of real fears for her personal safety and/or that Ellingham may indeed be cursed; the continuing friendship and alliance with Security Larry (this is a relationship I have really enjoyed in two books now); and the bumpy evolution of Stevie’s match with the troubled David. I said in my last review that getting to know him a bit better would yield more sympathies, and we do get that here. I still find him a bit obnoxious and don’t appreciate his treatment of Stevie, but they’re making progress.

Stevie grows in her relationships with others. A bit weirdly, the amazing Janelle continues to be identified as Stevie’s best friend, but our hero actually spends more time talking with and confides more in Nate, a hilariously Eeyore-like blocked writer. Janelle is a great friend, but involved in her own love match (that’s going more smoothly than Stevie’s), and it’s actually Nate who ends up fulfilling a day-to-day best-friends role. We have a new friend as well, Mudge, who is loveable if a bit of a cariaciture: he’s here to exhibit exactly how drolly eccentric Ellingham students can be.

Mudge was Stevie Bell’s lab partner–a six-foot-something death-metalhead who wore purple-colored contacts with snake pupils and a black hoodie weighed down with fifty Disney pins, including some very rare ones that he would show off and explain to Stevie as they dissected cows’ eyes and other terrible things for the purposes of education. Mudge loved Disney more than anyone Stevie had ever met and had dreams of being an animatronic Imagineer. Ellingham Academy was the kind of place where Mudges were welcomed and understood.

Security Larry, mentioned above, is a former police detective and becomes a mentor to Stevie in her own work, both cautioning and trying to enforce the rules upon her and gradually, increasingly, viewing her as a peer. He’s great. Several other faculty members develop as well. I very much related to poor Dr. Quinn trying to convince her students to do the readings before class.

I love Stevie more and more. She “would rather eat bees than share her tender inner being with anyone else–she didn’t even want to share it with herself.” She undergoes an actual epiphany (pages 108-109) when she realizes that her weird, awkward self is just a perfectly fine version of a human, and that her own unique combination of qualities is precisely what’s gotten her where she is in life; this is a passage I would like to share with everyone I know, but especially young people and especially girls just making their way and finding themselves. I would follow this protagonist anywhere.

As befits the final book in a trilogy, this one ends on a note of triumph, closure, and hope – perhaps a bit neatly tied up, in fact, but I know there’s another Stevie Bell book to follow. Again, for the sake of my sleep I’m taking a day or two off, but expect more any time now. Maureen Johnson is my new favorite. Thanks again, Liz.

Rating: 9 moose.

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