It's delicate work, writing about dead girls. It's far too easy to stumble into tasteless appropriation, to use the suffering of young women as an intellectual exercise, or for the purpose of lazy provocation. The dead girl is fodder for so many familiar pop-culture narratives, showing up in pulpy genre tales, on crime shows and films. Her body is stuffed into suitcases and refrigerators, her remains stumbled upon by dog walkers and joggers, her community holding hands and mourning her by candlelight. She's often merely a prop, an easy symbol of destroyed innocence that exists to drive the actions of others, and the kind of lurid titillation that readers lap up. It takes both skill and empathy to write absorbing fiction about dead girls that doesn't dangerously veer into exploitation, and with The Devil You Know, Elisabeth de Mariaffi has beyond succeeded.
The novel is set in Toronto in 1993 and narrated by Evie Jones, a 21-year-old cub reporter assigned to the disappearance and murder of young women. "[Girls] found in ditches or lost from bike rides home after school, girls taken to movies and never seen again, girls lost at the playground." Evie reports on the very real cases of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, schoolgirls kidnapped, tortured and murdered by notorious serial rapist Paul Bernardo and his wife, Karla Homolka. As she sits outside his "murder house" in St. Catharines, Ont., watching the forensics team pick it apart, it becomes apparent that Evie's deeper interest in the case is rooted in her past – she's haunted by the decade-old and still-unsolved murder of her childhood friend.
On the surface, The Devil You Know is your standard, well-crafted thriller, particularly reminiscent of Gillian Flynn's 2006 debut, Sharp Objects. As Evie grows increasingly obsessed with solving the mystery of her lost friend, the narrative becomes tight with the "monster in the shadows" anxiety that typifies the genre. A menacing man lurks outside Evie's kitchen window, she feels like she's being followed, the cops are wary of her story and the people in her life are convinced she's just seeing things. As with so many books before it, we wonder if our heroine will show us the truth, or if she's simply "making herself crazy" with the constant horror show she willfully submerges herself in.
Yet what sets this novel apart is de Mariaffi's masterful ability to evoke the feeling of the Bernardo era and what it has subsequently wrought. The reader is awash in the rape hysteria that gripped early-nineties Toronto and terrorized an entire generation of women, each still looking over her shoulder in the near-constant anticipation of becoming someone's next victim. It examines how sex became synonymous with danger for these post-AIDS-crisis girls, raised on fear instead of pleasure, and taught to be wary of a villain no one could protect them from. They unceremoniously dispose of their virginity before it is stolen from them, make glib jokes about their own violation, and view their anxiety as a gift to keep them safe from monsters.
De Mariaffi keenly captures exactly how violence shifts the emotional landscape of a community, and Evie becomes a stand-in for every woman who has felt that pervasive threat of rape and been told she's overreacting. She navigates the world with a disturbing yet familiar mantra; "Who? What? Safe?" Everything is analyzed as potential peril – scanning bars for the man who sits darkly in a corner, turning completely around while walking home at night, double-checking locks or sleeping with a knife under the pillow.
"There's a way of listening in the dark that's so intense for girls. You can feel the insides of your ears."
As Evie looks deeper, the question she consistently faces is, "Why are you doing this to yourself?" Her compulsion speaks to a trauma victim's need to look directly at the very thing that has harmed them, the idea that it sometimes feels safer to step forward into the darkness than to back away. There is a meta quality to this macabre bravery, informing the reader exactly why they're so caught up in the book itself. In a telling conversation between Evie and her mother, they discuss why women read true crime.
"It's so we can learn to get away," Evie's mother says.
The acknowledged futility of Evie's quest belies the standard "closure" that crime fiction has trained us to expect – regardless of what she "solves," she can never fix the horror of what has been done. "You can't research it away. It doesn't matter how much you know or what new thing you find. You can't make it not-have-happened." De Mariaffi illuminates the hopeless necessity of that journey with a deep respect for loss, making the book a success both in storytelling and cultural commentary.
The Devil You Know proves there can be enthralling literature about rape and murder that doesn't exploit or disrespect real-life anguish. The author has been incredibly thoughtful not only about what sexualized violence does to victims, families and communities, but the kind of broader climate it breeds for all women, how it makes their interactions rife with suspicion, their day-to-day near intolerable.
Checking the locks and sleeping with a knife under your pillow may be no way to live, but this novel serves as a vital accusation. This is the way you have taught us to live, it says.