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January 11, 2015

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

the-devil-you-knowThe stakes were high for Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know. On Wednesday morning, I walked 2km at -25 degrees to get a copy, because I’d been hearing such good things about it and it seemed like exactly the kind of book you want to hang out with curled up warm while the blizzard howls. A mystery, a thriller, a book set in Southern Ontario during the 1980s and early ’90s, during which a series of young girls were kidnapped and sometimes found murdered, otherwise their faces depicted on posters for years afterwards under the heading, “Missing.” Years later, “aged-enhanced” images of these children would be updated, but we’d still recognize them. I’ve noticed that reviewers have been responding to the book personally, viscerally. There’s a whole generation of us haunted by these missing girls—I could plot my own history by theirs, from Nicole Morin to Alicia Ross. (I was too young to know about the disappearance and murder of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan in 1983, though she was taken the very playground where my children play.)

Evie Jones, rookie reporter and protagonist of The Devil You Know is similarly haunted, not least because she’s currently covering the Paul Bernardo case as he and his wife are arrested for the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in 1993. But also, in particular, because her own childhood best friend was one of the dead girls, Lianne Gagnon, whose story is a fiction conflating the cases of Keenan and Allison Parrott, who was last seen getting into a car with a strange man near Varsity Stadium eleven years before. Leanne’s killer was never found. And when a strange man begins appearing on Evie’s fire escape and elsewhere, a dark figure skirting on the periphery of her life, she begins to wonder if it’s Lianne’s killer returned and if there’s something that he wants from her. Her fears are dismissed by those around her, but she can’t shake the feeling that she’s under threat, and no wonder—her own history, and the stories of women in the world that she covers in her job, do absolutely nothing to suggest otherwise.

It is suggested—perhaps too strongly, my one criticism of this book, for the signs are there and the reader surely can read them—that Evie’s job as a crime reporter is part of her need to control the forces in her life, that she seeks out stories like Bernardo’s and the stories in missing and dead girls, in order to be in command of the narrative for once. And by those concerned for Evie’s wellbeing, it is suggested too that her need for control is a bad thing, that it’s detrimental to her mental health, and that it’s this desperation making her imagine the footsteps at the door… I mean, never mind the actual footsteps at the door.

But with Evie, de Mariaffi dares to posit instead that female agency is a salve instead of a symptom. Evie Jones is far from perfect, but she’s smart, unflinching, shameless, and brave. The hero of her own story, certainly.

In her research, employing a brand new tool called the internet, Evie starts looking back at the records of what happened to her friend, and learns that there is more to the story than she ever knew. The big picture that emerges as she puts pieces together begins to suggest that the story of Lianne’s disappearance is less random than Evie ever supposed, and that she can trace the case back to a place that’s closer to home than she can bare to imagine. And that all the trouble (and the footsteps) might not be in her head after all.

The Devil You Know is a gripping, fast-paced book that I had to be torn away from, an excellent crime book with strong female protagonists, in scintillating company with those by Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. But there is more to it than that. More than just nostalgia too, though it’s a part of it. de Mariaffi was long-listed for the Giller prize a couple of years ago for her short story collection, How to Get Along With Women, which included her acclaimed short story, “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth,” which I first read in The New Quarterly. And while it seemed like a leap for a writer to go from literary short stories to a thriller, once I began reading The Devil…, the connection seemed quite straightforward to me. Partly because of the nostalgia that infuses both the novel and the story, 1980s Toronto in startling specificity. But also because of how much short story writing sets one up to write a plot driven novel—this has never occurred to me before.

Short stories are all about atmosphere and their scenes, one moment standing in for many, representative of a broader picture. Nothing is extraneous, and so too is it with a crime novel, plot-driven, which just really means one scene after another. Though perhaps with some writers and books, the reader doesn’t notice the scene, so preoccupied is she by plot, but the scenes stand out in The Devil You Know. A gripping, fast-paced book that I had to be torn away from, and I kept noticing the scenes, which were like tiny short stories contained within. The plot is the book’s foundation, but the story rises far and large above it.

It was terrific, and definitely worth a walk in the cold.

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