Review: The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Devil+You+Know>>Published: January 2015

>>Finally got around to it: February 2015

The stove light shone hard and white off the glass, bleaching it. I could see my own reflection, my own fridge and stove. One of my hands was full of spinach and I held it out in front of me with the fist tight and the raw leaves sticking out between all my knuckles. Where the faded, I could see the landing outside my window, a couple of solid black stumps. Boots. Black boots and legs. Someone out on the fire escape, looking in.

I counted in my head, waiting for the boots to move on, a friendly knock, something. Someone from upstairs, having forgotten his key. The boots stayed there. My breathing stopped and I squinted. The window shone a pale and cloudy version of my own kitchen: table, wall, desk, chairs, and under the stove light, a girl, staring. For a moment I didn’t recognize myself. I took two long steps to the window.

It can’t happen if you’ve imagined it enough.

My own long hair brushing my shoulders, the V of my sweater, my collarbone standing out white. In another yard, a cat or a raccoon screamed and the neighbor’s motion sensor kicked on. The outside lit up all at once.

The raccoon scrambling across the top rail of the yard fence.

The light held for a count of five. Long enough for me to see him there, only a foot or two from the window. Tall, black cap pulled down close, coat, boots, hands huge in black gloves. Eyes deep set. Face half in shadow.

Long enough for him to see me watching.

***

Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.

In the early ’90s, the names of two of Paul Bernardo’s victims became almost as widely recognized as the man himself. Bernardo, also known as the Scarborough Rapist, along with then wife Karla Homolka, kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered French and Mahaffy, as well as Homolka’s younger sister Tammy. Nowadays, Bernardo and Homolka rank right up there with the likes of Robert Pickton, responsible for the deaths of a suspected forty-nine victims—all women from Vancouver’s downtown east side—as two of Canada’s most notorious serial killers.

Such is the backdrop for Giller-longlisted author Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s first novel, The Devil You Know. The story centres on Evie, a twenty-one-year-old reporter on the low rung of a Toronto daily newspaper in the winter of 1993. It’s during Evie’s tenure with the paper, fresh out of journalism school, that the Bernardo case swells and then breaks wide open. But while the details of the Scarborough Rapist’s true identity are gradually brought to light, another more personal investigation occupies Evie’s thoughts: the murder of her best friend Lianne Gagnon, eleven years earlier, by Robert Nelson Cameron—a man of many aliases and a disturbing Charles Manson fixation (as if a fixation on Charles Manson could be anything but incredibly warped and disturbing).

Lianne went missing on May 23, 1982, and was found twelve days later, in a ravine in Toronto’s east end. She’d been raped and strangled to death. Cameron, however, was never apprehended, and was long suspected to be dead. But “suspected” doesn’t gel for Evie, not when there may or may not be a shadow of a man appearing nightly outside her apartment, staring in through the kitchen window. And certainly not when there are still so many pieces of her past and her parents’ past that remain unanswered—pieces that might help her understand what happened to Lianne and why; pieces that are revealed as she is engulfed by the Bernardo investigation and all its associated awfulness.

While Evie is living alone for the first time in her life, she is not alone on her journey. At her side (and occasionally at her beck and call) is David Patton, whom she used to babysit when she was twelve and he was ten. They’ve been friends ever since, with an inkling of something more. However, David’s father Graham has always been a source of contention, and of mystery. And as Evie continues to unearth new and startling connective tissue linking her family and David’s to an alias of the man suspected of murdering Lianne, she begins to spin—to lose sight of what’s real as her overactive imagination plots against her.

In using the Bernardo case as its backdrop, The Devil You Know is instantly recognizable as a product of time and place. de Mariaffi’s style has sharpened considerably since the publication of her short story collection How to Get Along With Women, which I found to be well written but often economical to a fault—I struggled to connect to the emotional through-lines in many of its stories. Despite some early bumps, I did not have this problem with The Devil You Know.

Said early bumps have to do with quotation marks. Namely, there aren’t any. It’s a stylistic choice, of course, but it’s one I admit I’ve never been fond of. Even if treated as nothing more than a visual grammatical accoutrement, I find quotation marks serve a rhythmic purpose in storytelling; without them, I have often found a narrative feels markedly monotone and lacking in emotion. Clinical is perhaps the most apt descriptor. This was certainly the case for me in the early chapters of The Devil You Know, as I struggled to break through the narrative’s chilly exterior, to find something within Evie I could grasp onto.

However—and this is a big however—by the novel’s end I felt the stylistic choice was justified. Not only justified, but essential. There are moments in this book of genuine tension, where Evie’s safety and the veracity of her reality are called into question. When these incidents arise, the lack of quotation marks allow the danger to slip quietly into play, like a knife you don’t even realize is there until it’s already six inches deep in your side.

It’s in this approach that the borders between Evie’s reality and her imagination—her fears—thread together as one. And it’s in this matter-of-fact presentation, void of unnecessary melodrama, that events unfold with such unexpected heft. I was surprised, by the novel’s end, at how much my opinion on this matter had changed. It’s still a stylistic choice I take issue with more often than not, but this novel is a rare case study in how to do it right.

My complaints are minimal. There is some repetitiveness near then story’s end—as twice Evie enters into someone’s home, uninvited, only to have them return unexpectedly, which creates an awful lot of Hollywood-worthy panic. I found myself wishing the first instance of this hadn’t happened, as its existence somewhat lessened the danger I felt near the end, when it occurred a second time.

And to get really nit-picky for a sec, why, during the second home invasion, does she stop to search through the big box of potentially incriminating evidence in the confined space that places her quite literally in the worst spot she could be in? Why doesn’t our intrepid journalist simply take the items out of the enclosed environment to a safer, more secure place to then investigate at her leisure? Why did she not learn from the previous instance, in the narrative’s not-so-distant past, when she got stuck in the place she shouldn’t have been because she didn’t get out fast enough? This is Thriller Movie 101 stuff here!

Apart from those admittedly minor issues, The Devil You Know is an exquisite piece of entertainment. It’s a page-turner in the truest sense, yet despite its thriller DNA it manages to say quite a lot about the devils among us in everyday life—and the ones we create and foster ourselves, on the inside. To this end, its final notes are haunting and perfect.

The devil remains, exposed but free.

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