The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

Review by Jennifer Irvine

Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins Publishing, January 2019

384 pages, e-book, $9.99 CAD, 978-0-662-33808-2

Age 14+, Grades 9+

Young Adult, Mystery, Contemporary Realism, Historical Fiction

At sunset, as loudspeakers in the street announced the night’s curfew, he donned a gold dressing gown and climbed to the rooftop of his Parisian apartment on the Rue de Rennes in Saint Germain. After toasting the city and the setting sun, he downed a last glass of champagne and swan-dived from the building into the street below. His body landed on a Nazi vehicle, denting the roof.

“A fourth-rate poet,” said a friend, “but a first-rate death.”

“Your friends are real dicks,” Stevie said.

“I know,” replied a voice, “but they’re the only ones I have.”

This is when the screaming started.

Murder, kidnappings, mischief, and a large dollop of teenage angst overflow from The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious), the second book in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series.

Ellingham Academy is a private school built in 1935 in the secluded hills of Vermont. With its great halls of crystal and marble, secret tunnels below, and aura of wealth, it’s a magnet for mayhem, no matter the era. School founder Albert Ellingham had a passion for riddles, and the last one he wrote before his death is the basis for the book title:

Where do you look for someone who’s never really there?
Always on a staircase but never on a stair.

In this novel, there are two sets of mysteries taking place 80 years apart. The first occurs in 1936, shortly after the school opens. The second is set in present day, with an equal amount of murders, riddles, and questions that may or may not be connected to the past. The story goes back in time through old letters, 1930s news reports, gossip, and a book written by renowned Ellingham Mystery expert Dr. Fenton.

Junior sleuths abound in both decades. Present day scholarship-kid and current crime-loving/budding detective protagonist Stephanie (Stevie) Bell is admitted into Ellingham by way of her vast knowledge and interest in the 1936 mysteries.

The unique characters are just quirky enough to make them relatable and the story a whirling dervish of entertainment. Stevie suffers from anxiety and has a “rescue” Ativan in her possession at all times just in case things get bad. Janelle is an expert in robotics and no stranger to panic attacks herself. Child author and dirtball dresser Nate Fisher is a loner with social anxiety who finds a kind ear and kindred spirit in Stevie. Computer whiz and gorgeous, pheromone-producing David Eastman rounds out the crew with his addictive bad attitude and many secrets yet to be uncovered. Incidentally, only David’s age (he’s 17 years old) is identified in the book.

The beginning of the novel is a review of the characters and plot left over from Truly Devious, the first book in the series. I liked that the backstory came by way of letters along with Stevie remembering various incidents, but because I had read the previous book, I didn’t need most of it. However, for those of you who haven’t, this summary means it’s not necessary to have read the previous book.

The hormones flying around like a flock of birds and the teenage-angst cutting the opulent school rooms with a dull butter knife are side-trips all their own. Author Johnson does a good job of including relevant tidbits like LGBTQ characters, teenage sexuality, mental health issues, and global warming concerns.

This second novel did not disappoint me. It had a constantly moving story line, multi-faceted characters, and mysteries both past and present. Based on the ending, there is a third book coming, and I will be reading it.

In 2016, JENNIFER IRVINE quit her job of 31 years to finish her BFA in Creative Writing at UBC where she writes fiction, YA and is even dabbling in graphic novel writing. She has been published in York University’s Existere Magazine and UBC’s online Garden Statuary Magazine.

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