In the opening scene of my novel The Devil You Know, rookie reporter Evie Jones has just returned home from one of the toughest crime beat assignments in 90s-era Toronto: she’s spent the last twelve hours sitting out front of Paul Bernardo’s house in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, watching the forensics team move in and out the front door. It’s February, 1993, and Bernardo has just been arrested for the murder of two young girls inside that house; but also for a long string of unsolved rapes in Toronto’s suburb of Scarborough—the rapist, long sought by police, had achieved legendary status. Young women like Evie have come of age in an unmatched climate of fear.
The forensics team that Evie is reporting on will ultimately find nothing, at least this time around, but the experience triggers Evie’s anxiety. Safe at home, she’s prepping a late dinner when she hears footsteps outside on the fire escape. A light blinks on, and she sees a man outside her window, looking in. When the light blinks off again, Evie rushes to the window—but the man has disappeared.
This image – the young woman in her kitchen, the stalker outside on the fire escape, and the sense of dread and anxiety (is he even really there?) – was the thing I carried with me for months before I sat down to write The Devil You Know, and it’s the image that would eventually grow into a novel about memory, childhood, and above all, fear.
For those who grew up in Toronto in the 80s and 90s, Bernardo’s name was synonymous with a kind of fear that held girls and young women hostage. But the 90s also gave us the bombardment of the 24-hour news channel, the beginning of the Internet, and a media culture that trades in scary stories –the kind of story that can extend so easily into our own lives. I had another one of these news stories in mind when I was writing Evie – the story of a little girl who’d gone missing in Quebec, back in 2007. A little girl who has never been found to this day. Part of Evie’s job as a crime reporter is to report on these cold cases, and as I did Evie’s research for her, the number of missing girls’ cases just kept piling up. I found myself thinking of the families of those girls, and also of their friends, the little girls who hadn’t disappeared, and what they might be left with.
That’s exactly Evie’s story. At age eleven, her own best friend Lianne Gagnon was abducted and murdered, and the killer never caught. Lianne’s murder is considered the country’s biggest cold case. Now twenty-one and new to her job in the newsroom of a major Toronto paper, Evie tempers her anxiety over the Bernardo case and her own possible stalker by delving into Lianne’s murder.
I was lucky enough to read at Thin Air two years ago with my first book, How to Get Along With Women, and I feel especially lucky to return with The Devil You Know – the first draft of which I actually finished writing in my Winnipeg hotel room, in between events, at that last festival. Consider it a kind of homecoming. (Plus I’m hoping all-star Festival Director Charlene Diehl will ferry me to the deli, as she did last time, for kolbassa and pierogies… )