‘The Devil You Know’ by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
The Devil You Know takes the form of a mystery novel, and follows de Mariaffi’s first short story collection, 2012’s How to Get Along with Women, which made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013. The collection focuses on women’s experiences, and The Devil You Know carries on in that vein. The novel, set in Toronto, is told by first person narrator Evie, a twenty-one-year-old rookie reporter whose best friend Lianne was killed when they were ten. When Evie must do research for a “dead girls feature,” she finds herself unyieldingly trying to solve Lianne’s murder to find answers. Evie becomes increasingly traumatized and psychologically tested as she digs deeper into the press files surrounding Lianne’s cold case, a state further worsened by visits from a “Peeping Tom” watching her in her apartment.
The Devil You Know flashes back in time through Evie’s memory mostly between 1982, the year of Lianne’s disappearance, and 1993, the novel’s present. It is not entirely clear when these time jumps are taking place, as within the same chapters, time jumps back and forth. The story is mostly believable, although Evie’s seemingly sudden photographic memory of decades-old events are suspect.
De Mariaffi pairs fact and fiction, using real-life stories and people as background. Early in the novel comes the arrest of Canadian serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo (the Scarborough Rapist), responsible for numerous sexual assaults in the late 1980s. A few real stories of murdered girls appear in the novel as well, such as that of Kristen French, one of Bernardo’s victims. Lianne’s suspected killer, Robert Cameron, who was never apprehended, has past ties with American serial killer and cult leader Charles Manson.
Evie explains that after Lianne went missing, and during the time of the Scarborough Rapist—who attacked girls at bus stops, and on their way home—children and teenagers experienced a heightened sense of fear, and their parents were more aware and restrictive of their whereabouts. Evie’s personal anxieties about men stem from Lianne’s murder, but are exacerbated by the media coverage of sexual assaults in Toronto, and the graphic details she recovers when reporting on similar cases. The Devil You Know is a rare, accurate portrait of the lived experience of women every day; while Evie is (rightfully) paranoid, her thoughts and experiences are not far off from the average woman’s – especially those who have experienced trauma.
The first time she reports the Peeping Tom to the police, the officer’s comment approaches victim blaming: “‘It’s pretty hard for us to do anything,’ Mercer said. ‘You women never remember what these guys look like.’”
Evie is constantly aware of her surroundings, and always on guard; she watches herself as someone would watch her, listens intently in her apartment to try to pinpoint the source of various unidentified sounds, talks to herself alone in her apartment to give the appearance of not being alone, and at times avoids strangers. Like many women, Evie has often analyzed how she’d get away in assault situations. This passage demonstrates Evie’s analysis during a panic attack: “If you’re going to pass out, I thought, do it outside. You can’t be alone. At least that way, if you pass out, someone will find you, someone will call an ambulance.”
Evie also experiences a couple of instances in which she believes she is being followed. Evie shares with many women the fear of sexual assault – the experience of becoming more alert, looking behind you when walking home alone at night; that uneasy feeling when a man is staring at you too long on a bus; or taking a detour so that if someone’s following you, they won’t know where you live.
De Mariaffi employs blunt language to engage the reader, and leaves the reader wanting more at the end of a chapter or passage. For example:
David has a way with his mother, where he can get her calmed down if they’re alone. No one’s angry, no one’s mad. You’re okay. It’s okay. His hand against her forehead, smoothing back her hair. You can see why he wants to disappear, to go off and fight fires in the Labrador woods. I’ve seen him feed her, one bite at a time, off his own plate.
The Devil You Know appears at first to be a whodunit, and while the mystery is a central point of the story, the thriller is also psychological, focusing on Evie grappling with the aftermath of Lianne’s case. Like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, The Devil You Know is mostly gripping, but there are parts where the story lags – passages with extensive details that aren’t visibly relevant to the mystery. About halfway through the book, an exciting revelation occurs that propels the reader to continue; however, after this catalyst, the main focus is on Evie’s paranoia, and not on new details in Lianne’s murder investigation. The story picks up again in the final act, and delivers a plausible conclusion.
A mystery told through the lens of a keen reporter, The Devil You Know is suspenseful, scary, and real.
HarperCollins | 308 pages | $22.99 | paper | ISBN # 978-1443434744