This reading group guide for The Devil You Know includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elisabeth de Mariaffi. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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In the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects
and A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife
, The Devil You Know
is a thrilling debut novel about a rookie reporter, whose memories of the murder of her childhood best friend bring danger—and a stalker—right to her doorstep.
The year is 1993. Rookie crime beat reporter Evie Jones is haunted by the unsolved murder of her best friend Lianne Gagnon, who was killed in 1982, when both girls were eleven years old. The suspected killer, a repeat offender named Robert Cameron, was never arrested, leaving Lianne’s case cold.
Now twenty-one and living alone for the first time, Evie is obsessively drawn to finding out what really happened to Lianne. She leans on another childhood friend, David Patton, for help—but every clue they uncover seems to lead to an unimaginable conclusion. As she gets closer and closer to the truth, Evie becomes convinced that the killer is still at large—and that he’s coming back for her. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What was your first impression of Evie Jones? How did your trust in her account of things and her reliability as a narrator shift as her obsession with the missing girls’ cases and Liane’s murder deepened?
2. How is Evie affected by Lianne’s murder? How does it continue to affect her and the choices she makes as an adult? Do you think Evie’s fascination with serial killers is because of or in spite of her proximity to Lianne’s murder?
3. Compare and contrast the different parent-child relationships in The Devil You Know
: Evie and her parents, Lianne and her parents, David and his parents. How does each parent’s decision affect the outcomes for his or her children? Think about the decisions about protection and safety versus independence and wanting what’s best for one’s child.
4. On page 60 Evie comments on the seed of missing child cases: “You just need one adult to look away, and another one to look too closely.” How do you think parenting behaviors, such as letting your child walk home from school alone, have changed since the ‘90s in response to the dangers presented by adult predators?
5. How is Evie’s mother, Annie Jones, shaped by her tough upbringing? How does this change her behavior as a mother?
6. Consider the theme of public spectacle and media sensationalism: what does it say about our culture that we’re all obsessed with these violent crimes and missing girls cases?
7. Why won’t Evie’s mother Annie say more when Evie confronts her in the bar (page 217)? Do you think she has a right to keep her past to herself? Why or why not?
8. What do you make of the relationship between Evie and David? How does he try to act as her protector? Why won’t she let him?
9. The novel opens with Evie in her kitchen and the stalker on her fire escape, a scene that is repeated later in the novel. Why do you think the author chose to include this repetition? What does it reveal about Evie?
10. The novel is full of very specific details about Toronto in the ’90s. Why do you think the author includes these details? Could Evie’s story have taken place anywhere, or is it specific to this city?
11. Compare and contrast the different female relationships in the novel: Evie and Lianne, Evie and her mother, Evie and Angie. Why do you think Evie doesn’t have close female friends after Lianne?
12. How does Evie’s mental state change throughout the novel? How does her desire to appear unafraid and self-reliant conflict with her growing paranoia and anxiety? Does she have good reason to be paranoid?
13. Angie gives Evie this advice the night before Evie drives to Whitefish Falls: “Stop living in the past, Evie. Time to get on with it.” (page 254) After the events of the novel, do you think Evie will be able to take Angie’s advice? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Evie gives newspaper headlines to events in her everyday life, such as “Stepping Stones to Hepatitis: A Visit to Margaret Fairley Park” (page 56). The week before your book club meeting, try to make up headlines for a few events in your own week. What headline would you give your day today? Share your headlines with your book club.
2. The real-life and very strange case of serial killer Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka was the focus of the non-fiction book Invisible Darkness
, which was turned into a feature film starring Laura Prepon and Misha Collins, titled Karla
. Read the book, or watch the film, and contrast the portrayal of violent crimes being sensationalized in the media to the representation in The Devil You Know
3. Join the conversation! Learn more about Elisabeth de Mariaffi by following her on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/demariaffi and on Twitter: www.Twitter.com/ElisabethdeM. A Conversation with Elisabeth de Mariaffi What was the inspiration for The Devil You Know? What do you find interesting about missing girls cases?
I grew up in Toronto through the late ‘80s and ‘90s, so that experience of widespread fear around the Scarborough Rapist and, later, the murders attributed to Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, is really close to me—I lived that very closely as a teenaged girl. I do think this is a universal thing. Every major city has a variation on that story—the Hillside Strangler, the Night Stalker, the Long Island Serial Killer. As a young woman coming of age, you’re struggling with some big conflict: you want all the fearlessness of striking out on your own for the first time and creating your adult life—at the same time, women are constantly told to be afraid, to fear for their own safety. It’s tremendously difficult to negotiate that conflict. It’s exhausting. Your physical safety is such a basic thing, and I think Evie’s anxiety just permeates every part of her life.
There’s a moment in the novel where Evie is sitting in the car, in an underground parking lot, and she’s rhyming off statistics about women’s safety: You’re more likely to get raped if you’re wearing a ponytail, less likely if you’re carrying an umbrella. I think women carry these facts with them like a kind of absurd Rolodex. I actually got those from my own daughter, who was fifteen at the time—she’d read them in a magazine aimed at teenaged girls. That kind of ingrained anxiety is just part of the experience of growing up female. It drives me crazy.
Aside from all that, though, I was also very close to a girl who went missing when we were both nine years old. I don’t remember very much from that time, but I did live a particular experience that not many people (thankfully) have access to. So, the phone call from the police in the middle of the night, when Liane first goes missing: that’s drawn from my own memory.
As I was working on the novel so many women I spoke with immediately said, “Oh, I had a friend who knew another missing girl, or, I knew someone whose cousin went missing.” So many of us are only slightly removed from this experience. Liane’s case is based on a composite of three or four missing girls cases that were high profile in 1980s Toronto. The portrayal of Evie’s experiences as a researcher and rookie news reporter are a fascinating look at ‘90s journalism. Why did you decide to give Evie this particular profession and insider access to the grisly cases she covers?
One of the things I like best about Evie is that she’s fighting the hand she’s been dealt. Journalism is a tough job, and even more so for Evie, who is guaranteed to run up against some stories that will trigger her anxiety. It might have been possible to make her a rookie cop, but I don’t think that catching the bad guy is really what motivates Evie. I think the central question for her is actually “What happened?” She wants the story. So being a reporter really fits with that.
It’s also true that in 1993, there was no easy way for the average person to do the kind of quick research we are now accustomed to. You’d have to go to a reference library and comb through a million microfiche files, actually look at photos of old newspaper pages. It’s so hard to remember a time before the Internet now, but I became really interested in the beginnings of that. Getting that LexisNexis access is a gigantic thing for Evie. It’s overwhelming and awesome. It also allows her to peer into others’ lives and stories without being seen—much like the stalker at her own window—and I loved the odd conjunction that made.
It helps that I was a reporter and features editor at a large student paper when I was in university in the mid-’90s. You’ve created a complex protagonist in Evie, at once smart and passionate, obsessive and anxious. Where did the seed of her character come from? Is she based on someone from your own life?
I love all those tensions in Evie’s character. There are parts of Evie that absolutely come from my own experience. Having grown up at around the same time, it’s easy for me to put a character in those places. And I’m a writer and she’s a writer, so there’s some understanding there. I found when I was writing the book, though, I’d swing back and forth. I have a daughter of my own, so sometimes I would identify with Evie, but other times I felt closer to her mother, Annie. Evie comments on the media’s need to keep up the hype around violent news stories on page 151: “My job was to keep finding new ways to talk about the same thing. You have to keep feeding it.” Why do you think we are so compelled by these stories? Why do they make so much news? What’s the line between interest and obsession?
I think the universality of these stories makes them compelling, the sense that it could happen to anyone. It could happen to your daughter, sister, friend. It could happen to you. There’s an element of fairy tale about many of them: a clear-cut villain, a victim. So that part also probably really appeals to our human need for storytelling, the kinds of stories we’ve told for thousands of years.
But I imagine the reason people follow them so religiously in the media is to reduce their own sense of powerlessness. If the stories themselves breed anxiety, then following the case every day in the paper or online makes you feel like you’re doing something. I’m not sure exactly where the dividing line between interest and obsession falls. As with true crime books, I imagine some women are following these stories to learn about how these crimes happen, to avoid becoming a victim or to survive if it happens to them.
The corollary to this, though, is that the more you focus on these stories, the more they feel pervasive. So I’m not sure it’s healthy to watch the news too closely. The Devil You Know is grounded in a strong sense of time and place, in the Toronto of the ‘90s. How did you go about creating this detailed setting?
Because I grew up in Toronto, I have a strong memory of that time, which made it easy to set the novel there. Although I do think that many cities have a case like Bernardo’s, something that set the population on edge in that same way, this particular story is really about the fear that he created in Toronto specifically. I find that geography really helps set the scene. Actively walking Evie through Toronto landmarks really made the place come alive. Evie has a history in Toronto. She has the downtown neighbourhood she lives in now, and also the midtown area where she grew up. We have the surrounding details of Annie’s life in Toronto in the ‘70s, and all the peripheral characters attached to all those places. So those details come together to construct a place that feels very real. The parts of the novel that take place in the country, in rural Ontario, provide some nice context and contrast to the city, and I think that grounds the reader in the setting as well. What kind of research did you have to do for The Devil You Know? Do you enjoy the process of researching, or is it more of a means to an end?
In terms of research, I did go back through a lot of newspaper files (which I had easy access to, thanks to the Internet! Haha.) I also looked at a public document that’s available on the web, a justice system report on the police investigation of the entire Bernardo case—from the Scarborough rapes right through to the murders.
I mostly worry about voice and story when I’m writing, so I don’t do a lot of pre-research, but I found it was a great thing to do whenever I got stuck or when the writing slowed down. It also makes you feel like you’re making progress. Some of those days I stumbled upon something that really caught my imagination, and then that thing would make it into the book. Other times, combing through the front section of an old newspaper really helped me see everything else that was going on at that time. How did you approach writing a full-length novel differently from your short fiction or poetry? Was there anything in the process that you found particularly surprising or challenging?
I was really learning as I went along. My only fiction experience was writing short stories, so the biggest thing I had to overcome was the fear of writing a novel. Some of what’s most important to fiction is universal to both forms—voice and dialogue, for example. But fitting the story arc together and adjusting the level of tension, those things are really different in a long novel than they would be in a ten- or twenty-page story. The first two chapters I wrote basically came out almost as self-contained short stories, and then I used that to propel the whole thing forward. I kept a list of scenes I knew needed to be in the book, so that when I was stuck I could just jump to writing a scene that appeared later in the story, something that fired me up that day or at least looked like fun to write. With one novel under your belt now, what are you working on next?
I’m just starting work on a new novel. I don’t want to give away too much yet, since the ideas are really fresh in my mind, but it looks like it will be about a grad student trying to trace her own identity. The trail leads her back to Eastern Europe—and a shocking conclusion to a history that began in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1920s Siberia and ends firmly in the new world.
That’s how it looks right now, at least—I guess we have to wait and see how it turns out.