[Series Synopses] Truly Devious #2: The Vanishing Stair

Cast of Characters


Stephanie “Stevie” Bell

  • Ellingham student, resident of Minerva House
  • her “thing” is investigating the Truly Devious case
  • takes medication for anxiety
  • “My uncle used to say to me, ‘You’re a pain, but I can’t see through you.’”
  • “It’s my persistence that made me an Ellingham student.”
  • “Stevie had always been Halloween ambivalent.”
    • she likes true-crime show promos and murder-mystery episodes and “slinking around in the dark”
    • she doesn’t like the “cute” princess costumes her mom forced her to wear every year as a child
  • reads the Websleuths forum “to relax when things got too much”

David Eastman (King)

  • Ellingham student, resident of Minerva House
  • an annoying rich boy, scruffy and difficult. Whatever ability he had — and apparently he had considerable ability in computer programming — he hid from the school and others. His likes were video games, not going to class, not talking about his past … / And Stevie”
  • just under 6 feet tall, dark curly hair, “brown eyes flecked with gold”, eyebrows “raised in constant amusement”, long and fine nose, worn-out T-shirts, wiry build, “long, elegant” hands, muscular arms
  • prodigal son of Senator Edward King
    • his mother was a concierge at a Marin resort who met Edward King at a fundraiser before he became senator
  • has a tendency to get himself kicked out of schools
    • at Ellingham, this takes the form of “screaming meditation” and sleeping on the green naked
  • turning 18 on December 7

Nathaniel “Nate” Fisher 

  • Ellingham student, resident of Minerva House
  • “Nate Fisher was a writer. At least, he was supposed to be.”
    • at age 14, he published The Moonbeam Chronicles online and gained a fandom that got him published and famous
    • “At home, he was that writer kid. He didn’t like publicity. His social anxiety made every event a nightmare. Ellingham was a retreat in the mountains where he could be among people who also did weird things.”
    • “The only problem was, he was supposed to be writing book two, and book two did not want to be written. Nate’s entire existence was avoiding the writing of book two of the Moonbeam Chronicles.”
    • “I don’t write romance. I write about finding dragons and breaking magic rocks in half.”
  • Stevie doesn’t confide in him about David, but he’s observant and loyal so she figures he probably knows
  • “Nate was one of those people who couldn’t quite sit still or look at you if the conversation went on too long”

Janelle Franklin

  • Ellingham student, resident of Minerva House
  • sends Stevie “dozens [of texts] a day, checking in on how she was”
  • Stevie’s confidante when it comes to David
  • “a maker, a builder of small robotics and other devices, who was currently preparing a Rube Goldberg machine for the Sendel Waxman competition. Her texts indicated she had been spending a lot more time in the maintenance shed building since Stevie had been gone, and that she was getting much more serious with Vi Harper-Tomo. Janelle’s life was full, and she wanted Stevie to be in it”
  • usually smells like “orange blossom perfume, coconut oil, pumpkin, and a tiny bit of industrial solvent.”
  • wears “her lemons” for luck and when she’s happy (she loves lemons)
  • “Janelle’s mind was a busy but perfectly organized place, running like one of her impossible machines. TV show plots ran alongside mathematical formulas, which blended seamlessly into smoky-eye tutorials, which catapulted her into romance before dropping her gently back into a bed of physics. And also, she answered every single one of her texts within a minute.”
  • favorite K-drama: Love Lessons with Tofu
  • is learning Korean based on Vi’s recommendation
  • “It was an understood thing that Janelle Franklin took Halloween very seriously. She had organized and planned for it with the same precision and attention to detail that she applied to everything in her life.”
    • spent a week making a Wonder Woman costume, with Stevie’s help
    • suggested Stevie dress up as Sherlock Holmes
  • “There was nothing like a text that said I NEED YOU TO FIX A MACHINE to get Janelle’s attention.”

Vi Harper-Tomo 

  • uses they/them pronouns
  • Janelle’s (romantic) partner
  • favorite outfit: “wide white overalls and a gray sweatshirt, silver-blond hair spiked high”
  • fluent in Korean and Japanese

Dr. Charles Scott

  • aka “Call Me Charles”
  • the head of the school and Stevie’s adviser
  • “Out of all the Ellingham faculty, he had the most bouncy personality, the one that said ‘Learning is Fun!’ in giant Comic Sans. He tended to dress in expensive geek chic — superhero T-shirts with designer jeans. His hair was somewhere between blond and the earliest hints of gray. Today he wore a fitted black cashmere V-neck and gray wool pants, looking every inch the aged version of the perfect New England preppy guy.”

Dr. Jenny Quinn

  • the assistant head of the school, “who looked like she drank student tears and ate lesser academics”
  • drives “a red sports car of some kind […] that looked like it should be zipping along some European road, or perhaps the coastline of Nice.”
  • “one of Ellingham’s most formidable academics. She was on more committees and was a member of more institutes than she had fingers and toes. Think tanks courted her. Harvard still missed her and was waiting for her to call. She was second in command to Charles, which seemed unlikely, until you remembered that Charles was a guy. […] She was also the first person Stevie had ever seen who was clearly wearing fashion. Not just things that were cool. Things that had been on runways

Dr. Irene Fenton

  • “Call me Fenton. No ‘Doctor.’ Just Fenton. It’s how I like it.”
  • author of Truly Devious: The Ellingham Murders, “the first read many people did on the subject”
  • teaches at the University of Vermont, in Burlington; in search of a research assistant for an updated version of her book
  • a regular at the Skinny Pancake
  • a smoker and an alcoholic in denial
    • “Every once in a while she gets kind of … agitated. She’s not dangerous or anything. She yells. But that’s it.”
  • per Hunter: “We have one agreement — she doesn’t drive. I drive or she walks or takes a cab.”
  • her house is full of books and also cats
  • thinks the Rolling Stones = “Best band in the world” and Exile on Main Street = “Best album in the world”


  • Fenton’s nephew
  • originally from Florida
  • has had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since age 15
  • lives with his aunt while he attends school: “Environmental studies. Going to try to save the world from global warming.”


  • security guard at Ellingham Academy
  • “[Stevie] had won him over with her serious study of the Ellingham case and the fact that she had … / Well, she’d led him to Hayes’s dead body. And then led him to the person who may have been responsible.”
  • normally wears a uniform
  • drives a blue Toyota

Dr. Nell “Pix” Pixwell 

  • housemistress and faculty resident of Minerva House
  • trained wildlife conservator
  • shaved head, grown out to fuzz “for warmth”


  • the school librarian
  • also runs the school’s biking club


  • security officer who drives Stevie into Burlington after Ellie is found
  • drives an old Acura

Element “Ellie” Walker 

  • was a second-year Ellingham student, resident of Minerva House
  • ghostwrote Hayes Major’s famous YouTube show The End of It All
    • earned money to buy her “beloved” saxophone Roota
  • disappeared from Albert Ellingham’s office after being confronted about possible involvement in Hayes’s death
    • “Ellie wasn’t officially guilty of anything. She was a student who ran away from her boarding school”
  • the first thing Stevie learned about her was the house rule “No fires, Ellie.”
    • “Last year. She knocked a candle over.”
    • she burns “endless” incense in her room anyway
  • smokes but can’t light a match 
    • “She uses a lighter because matches are too complicated. […] She doesn’t own boots. She has zero sense of self-preservation. She can’t drive. She’s made to live in cities and make art stuff.”
  • regularly snuck off campus to go to Burlington, with help from David and other friends
  • “Ellie’s mind was an active and colorful place and she decorated her world with its contents.”
  • her fashion style is “thrift-store finds and Parisian punk”
    • when she went missing, she was wearing “ballet shoes and a little dress”
  • “she was a freewheeling artist, an impractical dresser, a French speaker, messy. She liked wine and cabaret. She had a lot of colored pens and drawing books. Her medium was everything. She was color and glitter and chaos.”
  • “Ellie grew up on a commune, she lived in France.”
  • “She’s not from anywhere, so if she’s nowhere, it’s like she’s home.”
  • “The one thing Ellie would never do is mess up someone else’s art. That was like her religion.”
  • “Artist. Try-too-hard. Friendly. The girl with the bruises on her shins from climbing, with the holes in the toes of her cheap satin slipper shoes. The girl with the baby socks tied in her hair and the old cheerleader skirt. Ellie, who had a saxophone as a best friend even though she couldn’t play. The girl with the bottle of warm champagne she brought from France that she shared with two people she had just met.”
  • “Ellie was goofy and colorful. Ellie had been friendly from the word go. She was ridiculous in her tattered clothes, rolling off the hammock chair in the common room.”

Hayes Major

  • was an Ellingham student, resident of Minerva House
  • famous for his hit YouTube show The End of It All
  • died from carbon dioxide exposure while shooting a video about the Ellingham case
    • police declared his death an accident
  • “Hayes’s greatest talent was getting other people to do his work for him — his homework, his papers, his projects, his video series. Hayes had loads of people working for him. He was kind of a jerk”


  • “Hayes’s ex-girlfriend, the pianist. She had lent Hayes five hundred dollars and finally dumped him when she got tired of his user ways. It was Gretchen who told Stevie how Hayes recruited other people to do his work.”
  • “Gretchen was hard to miss, with her mighty crown of fiery red hair.”


  • briefly dated Hayes, worked on his video
  • a singer who dresses “like she was always about to go perform a set at some smoky little cabaret”
  • “Maris was the only person who seemed genuinely, properly hurt by Hayes’s death. They had not been a couple long (not that they had even been much of a couple), but she had cared about Hayes. Maris had been friendly with Ellie as well; they were both art people.”
  • after Ellie’s body is found, she seems to take over the role: “she was standing on one of the chairs. Squatting, actually. Like a chicken. It was a weird move, like something Ellie would do. / Ellie was gone. The new Ellie was taking over.”


  • worked on Hayes’s video
  • “Dash was a stage manager who wore large, floppy clothes. He was the one who really ran the video production.”

Kazim Bazir

  • the head of the Ellingham student union
  • “Kaz was always enthusiastic. His special interest was the environment, and he spent a lot of time getting Ellingham to convert over to composting toilets. Kaz cared a lot about composting toilets.”

Germaine Batt

  • an Ellingham student who fancies herself a journalist
  • “Technically, Germaine had done nothing wrong. It wasn’t her fault that her story was the thing that made Stevie’s parents pull her out. But the feeling was still there.”
  • “Germaine Batt was petite, just touching five feet. She had long, straight hair that today she pulled back in a bun. Like Stevie, she dressed for the job she wanted to have — she wore a black blazer with a white T-shirt under it, as if she might be called to be a talking head on the news at any time.”
  • “Her voice had a high register, and her words a hard, fast clip. She spoke like she typed.”

Stevie’s parents

  • (first names unknown)
  • avid supporters of Edward King; they “run an office for [him] in Pittsburgh”
  • “had a Google alert for all things Ellingham after Hayes’s death”
  • pulled Stevie out of Ellingham after reading the Batt Report (post)

Edward King

  • David’s father
    • the family resemblance creeps Stevie out 
  • “Edward King was the worst man in America. / Well, that point could be argued. But Edward King was a powerful man. He was a Pennsylvania senator, based here, out of Pittsburgh. This was the man who wanted to keep ‘outsiders’ and ‘bad elements’ out of America, which largely meant people who weren’t white, weren’t rich. For Edward King, wealth was goodness. There was no climate change in his world — the earth was there to produce more life-affirming dollars. This was a man who wanted to be president.”
  • “This was one of Edward King’s big talking points: A RETURN TO RESPONSIBILITY.”

Becky Eastman

  • David’s mom
    • lived in Harrisburg with David
  • became an alcoholic, passed out in a scalding hot bath when David was nine
  • “It’s not that Becky is just after money, it’s more that she doesn’t get that money doesn’t make you smart. She thinks people who have it are … maybe not better, but more complete, or something. I don’t think she’s worked out that you can be rich and have done nothing to deserve it. […] She’s not stupid, but she has some issues. You don’t get together with Edward King if you feel great about yourself.”
  • had another child, Allison, with another politician (“probably this guy in the state legislature who went to Becky’s gym”; David calls him Chad) who is quietly ousted by Edward King, who then divorces Becky

Allison Eastman

  • David’s half-sister, ten years younger


  • “former intern Tina”
  • Edward King’s second wife
  • “Tina is a good campaign wife. She has great teeth. Great big white teeth. It looks like she has a mouth full of kitchen cabinets.”

Ann Abbott

  • author of the books Better Than Homemade! The Story of Baking in America, Jell-O! The Wobble that America Loves, Salad Days: How Salad Became Popular

1936 narrative

Francis Josephine Crane

  • born February 15, 1919
  • interests listed as chemistry, films, ballet
  • resident of Minerva House
  • “the second-richest student at Ellingham Academy”
  • “Francis, like Gertie, was from New York [City]. She was the sixteen-year-old daughter of Louis and Albertine Crane, of Crane Flour. […] Her parents were fast friends with Albert Ellingham, […] [so] Francis was sent off to Vermont in a chauffeured car, with a van of trunks following that contained every possible luxury”
    • at age 8, she toured a family flour mill that had exploded, “learned of flour’s combustible properties”, “fell in love with explosions, with fire, with the burn and the boom. There was the taste of danger on the tip of her tongue”
  • “Louis’s daughter, Francis, was well-known for her literally hell-raising ways. In despair, her parents sent her away to join the first class of their friend Albert Ellingham’s new academy in the hills of Vermont. Unfortunately, her stay there was concurrent with the infamous Ellingham kidnapping, and she returned home. The Crane family, it seemed, attracted disaster.”
  • “Francis, who made it a point to speak to the servants”
  • “Francis was rich enough and smart enough to have grown bored of possessions. She liked secrets. Secrets had real value.”
  • the famous Bonnie wrote poems; Frankie seems to have been emulating her in the poem draft Stevie found
  • “Most of the family fortune went to her older brother […] There was some kind of argument within the family, I believe, which resulted in Francis largely being taken out of the will. […] Francis may have gone to France right before the war, and [she may have] lived in Paris and had a daughter.”

Edward “Eddie” Pierce Davenport

  • from Boston
  • born November 12, 1918
  • interests listed as literature, opera, art
  • resident of Apollo House
  • looked a bit like Lord Byron
  • “had tattooed stars on the soles of both his feet in black ink”
  • “He came from the same kind of wealthy background as [Francis] did; he was from Boston and his family was in shipping. Eddie had made it his life’s mission to disappoint his family, and he had been doing exceptionally well at this. There were tales of seducing maids, wandering naked through formal dinners, filling an entire bathtub with champagne. He had been expelled from four of the best schools in the country before his parents got on their knees and begged their friend Albert to take Eddie to the mountains where he might stay out of trouble for a few minutes. Or, at the least, make trouble in a remote setting. That was enough.”
  • “Eddie introduced Francis to poetry — the swirling, wild storms of the romantics, the jigsaw realities of the modernists and surrealists. He conveyed his dream — to live a life in which every impulse was to be followed. He showed Francis the various things he had learned in his romantic life, and Francis was an apt pupil.”
  • “There was nothing in this world as beautiful as Eddie lying there on the ground, his chest bare. He was not a nice boy; he was a dirty, wild boy, almost as dirty and wild as Francis herself. She had been with other boys before, but they fumbled. Eddie knew precisely what he was doing.”
  • “He was so wild, he had the imagination, the dreams. But he didn’t think about practicalities, like G-men, police dogs, and roadblocks. He wanted to be an outlaw without the discipline or practice of being an outlaw. It was up to [Francis] to keep him in line.”

Dottie Epstein

  • Truly Devious victim; resident of Minerva Two
  • “Dottie was a strange, elusive creature, always squirreling herself away somewhere to read.”
  • “she did not look rich. Her clothes were plain, and she wore the same ones in most of the photos. But she looked much happier than Edward or Francis. Her smile was always wide, and she usually had a book in her hands or under her arm.”
  • “her voice [was] high and clear, with a very thick New York accent”
  • had a cop uncle who “taught [her] how to get into places”
  • fascinated by “locks and things like that”
  • from the Lower East Side, NYC
    • “this girl from Avenue A who read Greek and slipped into one of the rare books rooms three times. They said she was trouble, but good trouble.”
  • Albert Ellingham: “I remember the joy on her face when she arrived at the academy — when she went to my library and found out she could have any book she wanted. […] the best money I ever spent was on Dottie Epstein’s books. I was feeding a mind. She was a tremendous kid.”

Albert Ellingham

  • founder of Ellingham Academy
  • “America’s king of newspapers, of radio”
  • died in a yacht explosion, thought to be anarchist revenge for Vorachek’s death
  • “Albert Ellingham had grown up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City himself; perhaps that was why he felt such affection for little Dolores Epstein. He had worked as a news seller from the age of eight, collecting his pennies and nickels. More than once, he had spent a cold night sleeping in a doorway. He sometimes found shelter in the New York Public Library, where he had read Sherlock Holmes — read all the stories, committed many lines to heart.”

Iris Ellingham

  • Albert’s wife, a socialite
  • was kidnapped and murdered
  • “She’s … distracted. […] she’s not like [Albert]. She’s not serious-minded.”
  • “She was looking for thrills, Albert. She was using cocaine. You know that. You know what kind of company she kept. She wanted fun and adventure. She was bored up here.”

Alice Madeline Ellingham

  • Albert and Iris’s daughter
  • was kidnapped with her mother
  • is still missing, possibly dead
  • “Little Alice. Oh. Albert lives for her. You don’t understand. He lives for that little girl. […] You’d think she was the only person in the world.”

George Marsh

  • an FBI agent who does security at Ellingham Academy
  • got famous for disarming a bomb in Albert Ellingham’s car
  • possibly Ellingham’s private bodyguard, based on Frankie’s observations

Robert Mackenzie

  • Albert Ellingham’s secretary

Marion Nelson

  • housemistress of Minerva
  • Albert Ellingham’s mistress of seven years (as of 1936)
    • “This is why Miss Nelson’s hair was so carefully done. This is why she wore small diamond earrings that were unobtrusive and yet far beyond her means.”
  • “Miss Nelson was not prone to drama. She was a controlled woman, well-groomed and attractive and of a certain type — a graduate of Smith who taught biology. She had glossy chestnut hair, always wore the same pair of expensive-looking diamond studs, but otherwise rotated through the same few outfits. Like everyone who taught and worked at Ellingham, she was talented and sharp.”

Gertie van Coevorden

  • resident of Minerva House
  • “probably the richest student at Ellingham; she had two Astors and a Roosevelt in her family tree, a fact that she managed to work into conversation at every possible opportunity”
  • Francis knows that she is “in fact the biological daughter of a handsome barman at the Central Park Casino. […] Neither Gertie, nor Gertie’s father, knew this”

Agnes Renfelt

  • resident of Minerva House

Leonard Holmes

  • “the famous painter who was staying with the Ellinghams at the time of the kidnapping”
  • described Frankie and Edward as “show[ing] a bit of a spark”

Flora Robinson

  • a guest of the Ellinghams
  • disappeared from Iris Ellingham’s dressing room before Marsh arrived to help

Anton Vorachek

  • “the man arrested for the murder of [Albert Ellingham’s] wife and the kidnapping of his daughter”
  • “He was an anarchist, unpopular, the perfect patsy when someone had to go down for the crime.”

Margo Fields

  • “the local telephone operator who connected the ransom calls”

Rose Peabody

  • a friend of Iris Ellingham
  • lived in Manhattan, NYC

Table of Contents

Each number below corresponds with the section’s page number.

  1. Overview
  2. Plot Summary & Content Warnings
  3. Cast of Characters
  4. Worldbuilding & Vocabulary

One thought on “[Series Synopses] Truly Devious #2: The Vanishing Stair

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