Monday, January 19, 2015


In Montreal, in the summer of 2005, women were being attacked in my neighbourhood. It was the first time that this stuff that happens all the time was tangibly happening in a place I was. Young and naive (read: a dumb boy), this rash of specific, directed violence only showed up on my radar when it effected me. Walking home after hours, I'd sometimes fall behind a woman on an otherwise empty street. I was just some regular tipsy dude minding his own tipsy business, as the person in front of me was surely minding hers, but suddenly we were snared in a scenario, cast in roles. Behind someone, I felt immediately like a threat, felt perceived to be something I wasn't.

With everyone on high alert that summer, friends of mine were urging me to cross the street if I found myself coming up behind a woman alone. Anyone following them was a potential attacker. But then other friends would insist that, no, whenever a man scurried to the other side of the street, they worried the dude was flanking her. I was to stay where I was, but keep a safe, consistent distance. Whatever my behaviour, I imagined the woman in front of me tensing. I knew I wasn't a threat, but this person didn't. Or maybe she wasn't concerned at all, and the the worry (as it often is) was all just in my head. I was always tempted to call out "Don't worry! I'm one of the good ones!" Except isn't that what one of the ones who wasn't one of the good ones would call out?  

Paranoia, whether it's justified or misplaced, has a way of turning a banal situation into a charged scenario, of turning a regular person in the world into a character in a book. Elisabeth de Mariaffi's The Devil You Know is a tense read, but what sets it apart from most taught thrillers is the nature of its core tension. About Evie Jones, a rookie reporter initially compiling a history of missing girls in Ontario on the cusp of the Bernardo case breaking, this first novel taps into and keeps a hold of the the real-life, palpable fear and doubt created by ambient, cultural paranoia. 

A teenager when the Scarborough Rapist was active, Evie is no stranger to being on high alert. "You think about how scared you can make yourself at night on a dark, lonely street," she remembers about that time, when any girl was a possible victim. "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 begins to professionally explore the bottomless history of crimes against women, like feelings of being followed and observed begin to creep in. From a thriller narrative standpoint, de Mariaffi brings the alone-and-hearing-things-in-your-house feeling to a slow boil before shifting The Devil You Know into high gear, but -- more importantly -- she uses this build up to establish the reality of crime, of fear.

Early on in the book, Evie and her mother are browsing true crime books at a flea market and, picking up a copy of Helter Skelter, Evie points out: "Here's a stat for you... Women are voracious true crime readers. No word of a lie. Much more so than men." "So," her mother sorts, "the men are doing all the serial killing, but the women are reading about it." Later, mother prompts a conclusion that sits like a lump in the throat of The Devil You Know: "You know why women read that stuff... It's so we learn how to get away."  

It's a gut-bothering ouroboros: sensationalism is based on reality, and we begin to experience and worry about reality based on those sensationalized versions, but then real life is irrefutably sensationalized when the worst kind of real life actually happens to you. This complexity at work in The Devil You Know is never didactic or annoying, but rather de Mariaffi puts such a sure finger on her subject matter that you might need to just lie down on the floor for a few minutes. As one character puts it: "It's an old story... And a sad one."

Of course, de Mariaffi seemingly paints herself into a bit of a corner. The visceral, sad fact of the world we live in -- or, rather, the world we're from time to time forced to inhabit, possibly by the person coming up behind us on an empty street -- is so effectively evoked that the idea of introducing a mystery runs the risk of cheapening or exploiting the real emotion. To go into exactly why this isn't the case would blow a great read, so I'll leave that for you to discover.

The timing might seem prime for the kind of eyes The Devil You Know looks at the world with. With 2014's Ghomeshi and Cosby revelations, and more recently the Dalhousie debacle, it seems like the log's been toed over and the gross, wriggling mess underneath has been exposed. But this misery is not news. Women being on the receiving end of such ceaseless-feeling repugnance is a fact, not news. Like the dummy 20-something I was when women, peers, were being attacked around the corner from me, it took me being even slightly effected to take notice. At the book's outset, Evie is tasked with using the history of damaged and deleted women in Ontario to prove that has been getting worse. "But I wasn't sure that was true," Evie admits. "I'd already learned that I could pick any year, any time, any place, and run a search that included the term 'missing girl' with good success. With the history of national news wide open before you, all you need to do is close your eyes and let your finger fall on a random date."

- Andrew

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