Book Review – The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

Pages: 369
Published: 22nd January 2019
Genre: Young Adult Mystery
Trigger warnings: Child death

All Stevie Bell wanted was to find the key to the Ellingham mystery, but instead she found her classmate dead. And while she solved that murder, the crimes of the past are still waiting in the dark. Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity – son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unravelled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine – and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for.

A great many things were promised for this sequel, and it really does not disappoint. With not one but two mysteries left unresolved at the end of Truly Devious plus a cliffhanger ending, there were plenty of enticing reasons to read on which created high expectations, yet the clever plotting and enjoyable storytelling provide little doubt that the author is taking the series in a clear and fascinating direction.

The writing is fast paced and the characters are engaging and quirky as before, but beyond that there are several more layers which enhance the story arc and give it an added depth which sets it apart from other similar books in the young adult genre. While it may have its fair share of humour and moments of delightful randomness as it acts as an ode to classic mysteries, these are balanced neatly by some serious moments and themes, so it rarely puts a foot wrong.

After a couple of tragic events beset her first term at Ellingham Academy, an exclusive school in Vermont for children with precocious knowledge or particularly innovative talents, Stevie Bell was made to come home by her concerned parents. She is desperate to be able to return and continue investigating the unsolved kidnappings of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter from the school in 1936, about which she has recently discovered startling new evidence.

The chance to go back arrives from the most unlikely source in the shape of Senator Edward King, possibly her least favourite person in the world and who her parents happen to work for. He makes Stevie an offer she cannot refuse and talks her parents round, and so he escorts her back to Ellingham Academy that same evening in his private jet.

A new all-encompassing surveillance system has been installed at the school in response to recent incidents, and as Stevie reunites with her friends and returns to her studies, she is given access to important artefacts in the attic space and becomes a research assistant to the author of a book on the Ellingham case. But there is still a present mystery hanging over the school, and the increasingly complex relationship with her classmate David to contend with.

The first thing to say about the plot is that more loose ends from the first book are tied than you might expect. Before you know it, Stevie is whisked back to Ellingham Academy and from that moment on there are two main focuses – solving the enduring mystery of what happened to the Ellinghams, and the on/off romance with David. Throughout this, it is an entertaining read and you never encounter a point where nothing is really happening.

Once again, it is written all in the third person, split between Stevie in the present day and the 1936 timeline. Both of them really embrace the thrill of the mystery, and the way they subtly overlap is done very well. We get a lot of revelations in the earlier timeline here and it was brilliant how we got a different perspective on events to what we knew before, including the central question of who actually is Truly Devious.

Stevie remains an endearing character for the most part, especially with her ceaseless devotion to crime solving and many moments of wit. Though in the third person, the writing has a way of conveying her thoughts so clearly and with real authenticity, which gets more exciting when she solves riddles and clues. An extra point too for how well her anxiety is represented.

The one thing about Stevie that I struggle with is her ongoing romance with and feelings for David, who despite having many sides to his personality remains difficult to like. There are reasons to feel sorry for him at times and he is capable of being a good person, but much of his behaviour in this story is blatantly childish and attention-seeking. On that topic, we never do find out where he gets the squirrels from…

Some of the best moments arrive when Stevie spends time with her two best friends, who are truly delightful in very different ways. Janelle is perhaps my favourite character; the kind of smart, positive, high-functioning individual we all aspire to be. Meanwhile, Nate is enjoyably deadpan and actively shuns social norms, yet happens to be fiercely loyal.

Going back in time, it was fantastic to learn more about the ill-fated Dottie Epstein, who made such an impression in just a few pages at the start of the first book before being killed. The way her fellow pupils such as the crafty Eddie and Frances are developed also sheds more light on this timeline and adds to what we knew before, with Albert Ellingham at the heart of it.

There was more to discover about Ellingham Academy here, with secret passageways and further insights into what relics lurk inside the Great House, but the addition of the surveillance cameras does give it a slightly less welcoming feel. The other main setting was Fenton’s house, which was far from hospitable with its cluttered and musty interior.

The writing takes pleasure in building up the mystery and emphasising Stevie’s passion for solving crimes, making the story more immersive. Aside from a section later in the book which came across a little vague, it is engaging and neatly plotted. The ending was dramatic in both timelines, with a stream of revelations in the past and another cliffhanger in the present.

Overall, this was a very worthy follow-up to Truly Devious and is arguably even better, with added character depth and an expansion of several of the concepts which had been introduced within both timelines. It combines the serious with the frivolous to good effect and most importantly, delivers a fun and enticing story that continually holds your attention.

An excellent sequel. Two books in and this series is extremely fun to read, and this one expanded on many of the things that were good about Truly Devious.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s