WHEN CANADIAN COUPLE Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were arrested for the abduction, rape, and murder of two teenage girls in 1993, Canadians were collectively horrified. For three years, a man known as the Scarborough Rapist had terrorized a Toronto suburb, lurking around bus stops and following women home at night. After he met Homolka, the crimes escalated; Bernardo became the “schoolgirl killer,” and she, his accomplice. Together, they were the “Ken and Barbie” killers. How, everyone wanted to know, could a young, attractive, seemingly respectable couple do something so unthinkably horrific?
Perhaps the more important question, though, is how the Bernardo case affected those who grew up in its aftermath. What was it like to be a young woman coming of age in that climate of fear? The answer can be found in Canadian writer Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s magnificent and daring debut novel, the literary thriller The Devil You Know.
Set in Toronto in the early 1990s, The Devil You Know tells the story of Evie, a 21-year-old reporter whose regular beat is the basement research library. But then her boss puts her on a new assignment: watch Bernardo’s house. De Mariaffi seamlessly blends facts from real murders into fiction, and the Bernardo case acts as a backdrop for a psychological exploration of one woman’s trauma. De Mariaffi writes with great sensitivity, portraying the violence without sensationalizing it.
The Bernardo case would be a tough assignment for anyone, but for Evie, it has particular personal relevance. She has a backstory. She was 10 when her best friend Lianne disappeared and was found 12 days later, raped and murdered. The killer was never caught, which plagues Evie’s adult life. As a narrator, Evie often sounds older and wiser than her age, perhaps because she was forced to grow up too fast. Yet she refuses to be a victim; instead, she funnels her grief into a career as a news reporter, a “balls-out way of handling trauma,” as she describes it. She’s devoted to her new assignment to a degree that doesn’t seem entirely healthy. Her editor asks her to compile research on all the girls who’ve gone missing since 1983, and these “dead girls,” as she calls them, become her life. De Mariaffi chillingly depicts this climate of fear, capturing what it was like to be a young woman striving for independence at a time when women were told not to walk down the street alone: “Without knowing his name or what horror was to come, Paul Bernardo was the thing we thought about when we got on and off the bus in the evenings, or on our way home from dance class, or whenever a man walked behind us too long or too close.”
Women are taught this fear from an early age. “There’s a way of listening in the dark that’s so intense for girls,” says Evie. Her fear is palpable. Back in high school, she and her friends discussed the Scarborough Rapist, a “presence larger than a real person, an eye that saw when you were alone and unguarded.” And now, Evie lives alone in a small apartment. Several of the novel’s pivotal scenes take place in her brightly lit kitchen, where, to the outside world, she is like a fish in a fishbowl. When she sees someone outside on her balcony looking in at her, she is forced to realize how vulnerable she is.
Apart from her relationship with her parents, Evie’s only close bond is with David, a boy she met not long after Lianne was killed. After she was made to feel so powerless, it’s fitting that her oldest friendship was formed when she was in a position of power: she was David’s babysitter. Even in adulthood, she has the upper hand in their ambiguous relationship. Their interactions provide some relief from the more suspenseful storyline of the novel, yet theirs is not a straightforward romance. Although David is clearly enamored with Evie, much of the time she seems strangely indifferent to him, calling him only when she needs him. She’s far too caught up in her work, obsessed with using her newfound access to the world of Internet research to solve Lianne’s murder, to think about love.
A gripping page-turner on one hand, The Devil You Know is also literary in its unwavering focus on the complex portrayal of the psychology of its main character, and in its illumination of broader issues around violence against women. That it manages to do all this at once is no small accomplishment, and because of this I am inclined to agree with Jeet Heer, who — in a review of Canadian novelist Lisa Moore’s literary thriller Caught for The National Post — argues that some of the “most interesting writing of our time takes place at the intersection between genre and literature, with writers trying to merge the stylistic power of the modernist tradition with more vernacular storytelling modes.” Like Moore, de Mariaffi has moved from a genre with a limited audience (her previous book was a collection of short stories with a Canadian small press) to one with the potential for commercial success and a wider audience.
Evie’s predecessors can be found in de Mariaffi’s accomplished 2012 collection, How to Get Along with Women (Invisible Publishing), which features several female protagonists so intriguing I found myself wishing they extended beyond the confines of a short story. With the space afforded by a novel, de Mariaffi has created a protagonist who is fully formed. Evie feels fleshed out, genuine, and flawed. She is stubborn, and she is haunted by memory in a way that colors her ability to form meaningful connections with those around her, as evidenced by her on-again, off-again relationship with David.
As a reader, it’s easy to be immediately drawn into Evie’s voice and headspace. De Mariaffi accomplishes this by keeping the reader firmly in Evie’s first-person point of view. The prose is delivered in a crisp, matter of fact style that befits a reporter. Evie is constantly searching for, finding, and reassessing facts. Yet her investigation is not purely factual: memory also has a role to play in her reconstruction of events. “Memory works on random cues,” Evie says. “A sound, or some visual blip, something you’d never be able to identify in advance.” When she and David go to an open house down the street from the house where she grew up, Evie is triggered by the identical layout and suddenly uncovers a piece of the puzzle, a fragment that had been buried in her memory for 11 years. “Here’s what happened,” she tells the reader. “Not the way I’d remembered it the week before, or the month before, or any month in the past eleven years, but the way I remembered it standing on the landing halfway between the bedrooms and the front door in that house on Bessborough Drive.” Memory is malleable, yet fixed in time, specific.
Evie describes what she calls a “confabulation” as a false memory, something “probably induced by a combination of guilt and suggestion.” If, she says, “you want to answer a question badly enough, your brain will supply the solution.” That she must sort truth from confabulation is one of the main tensions in the book; the conflict between her emotional trauma on the one hand, and her job as a reporter on the other. Her personal obsession combines with her professional, journalistic obsession and drives the narrative forward. Her job is to be objective, to confront the cold, hard facts, yet everything is colored by her previous experiences. A therapist advises her not to read the news about girls getting abducted, raped, or killed. “I write those newspaper stories,” Evie tells the therapist. In trying to solve Lianne’s murder herself, Evie attempts to control the narrative of her past, to reclaim some form of power.
It’s not entirely clear whether the scary, black-booted man who appears on Evie’s balcony is real or simply a manifestation of her imagination. Either way, that presence lurking in the shadows represents the omnipresent fear that just won’t go away. The novel is a portrait of living with this fear, day in and day out, with it always lurking just outside your kitchen, on your balcony. And it’s about what can happen when those fears aren’t taken seriously. After seeing the man on her balcony again, Evie calls the cops. “It’s pretty hard for us to do anything,” the cop tells her. “You women never remember what these guys look like.” He doesn’t even let Evie finish her story. This causes moments of doubt, yet Evie refuses to simply sit down and stay silent. She defies her fear: “I don’t even care that you’re out there, watching me; I’m going to do everything right here in my kitchen, everything right next to the window,” she says to no one.
The title of the novel brings to mind a frightening statistic: roughly 80 percent of rape and sexual assault cases involving college-aged women are committed by someone the victim knew. “Here’s a handy rule of thumb for you,” Evie tells a colleague. “When you get attacked, it’ll be someone you know. So that’s comforting, right?” There’s of course nothing comforting about rape or murder, which begs another question: why are so many female readers drawn to crime fiction? Evie and her mother are at a flea market when they come across a display of true crime paperbacks. “Here’s a stat for you,” Evie tells her mother, “Woman are voracious true crime readers. No word of a lie. Much more so than men.” Evie buys a copy of Helter Skelter, an account of the Charles Manson murders. “You know why women read that stuff,” Evie’s mother tells her later. “Vicarious living,” says Evie. “Don’t kid yourself,” her mother says, “It’s so we learn how to get away.”
The Devil You Know is not always easy reading. As I followed Evie further and further down the rabbit hole of her one-woman crusade to capture Lianne’s murderer, I was afraid for her. I wanted to arm myself, to ply my emotional lining with booze, like Evie and her hard-nosed boss Angie do as a way of numbing the hard truths of the cases they report. The details of violence against women revealed in the novel are uncomfortable and disturbing; it would be easier to look away. Yet these are truths we have to face, and they are best faced sober, in the light of day.
That’s why The Devil You Know is an important novel. It illuminates the repercussions of what that fear can do to the psyche. In portraying one woman’s fear, it portrays the fears of many women. In some ways, Evie is typical of the type of female protagonist found in crime fiction: she is strong, a little flawed, a little damaged. We identify with her as we watch her attempt to solve the crimes, rooting for her. Yet de Mariaffi does not give us the kind of neat, tidy ending you might expect from the thriller genre. Instead, she opts for something that may be ultimately less satisfying, but is more complicated, more compelling, and more real, like Evie herself.
Lesley Trites is a freelance and fiction writer based in Montreal.