Maureen Coughlin—an underdog oppressed by her own low ambition and everyone else’s belief that she’ll never accomplish anything beyond waiting tables—sees something that was never meant for her eyes: either a homoerotic encounter between unlikely lovers, or an only vaguely consensual act meant to satisfy a debt. By the time the answer becomes clear, the 29-year-old protagonist Bill Loehfelm’s The Devil She Knows has found herself involved in a murder investigation whose chief suspect is rich, powerful, and a shoo-in for the U.S. Senate.
The plot is triggered when Maureen takes another unscheduled shift, after many on end, at the Narrows, the Staten Island bar where she’s been working for longer than she cares to remember. The night of a big political fundraiser at the bar, one of her even less ambitious cohorts is again a no-show, and her boss Dennis leans on Maureen to fill in. It’s a good night, good money, until her shift ends, and she sits drinking too much scotch with her co-workers after the dizzyingly busy night is over. Waking to darkness, she finally realizes she’s in Dennis’s office and tries to remember the events that landed her there: “The fuzzy scenes materialized out of time and sequence,” Loehfelm writes. “She watched Dennis half-carry her to the office, saying something about her being too drunk to go anywhere. She saw herself ducking into a stall in the ladies’ room for another bump of coke. More than once.” Cocaine is only part of Maureen’s problem, however: later, she doubles up on booze “to shave the frantic edge off the high.”
After a grim self-assessment and accounting of the night, Maureen hears voices. Peeking through a crack in the office door, she sees something she has no idea how to register: Frank Sebastian, the silver-haired political candidate who’d been the beneficiary of the fundraiser earlier in the night, was getting off courtesy of her friend and boss, Dennis: “Frank Sebastian was looking right at her, or at least in her direction,” Loehfelm writes. “Maureen’s knees went weak, almost out from under her. She turned to the wall, propping herself with one hand. Sebastian roared. Maureen threw up on her shoes.”
Maureen can’t pinpoint why this scene upsets her so much, but when he badgers her on the street as she tries to make her way home, she quickly realizes that Frank Sebastian isn’t a nice guy. And that makes him, in her mind, the chief suspect when Dennis is found dead on the train tracks the next day, and Maureen’s shabby apartment is ransacked shortly thereafter.
But the girl who both runs to stay in shape and battles a coke problem isn’t intimidated easily. Either because there’s not much to save in her life or because she so desperately wants to create a life in which there is, Loehfelm’s hero navigates her new hell—in which she is harassed by Sebastian and his goons, and her friends turn up dead—with the sort of fearless humor most people would hope to have if a corrupt, rainmaking mafia boss-a-like decided to turn his evil their way.
In his third book, Loehfelm—also the author of Bloodroot and Fresh Kills, the first winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award—has done what the best thriller writers always hope to accomplish: create believable, human characters whose stories hold us utterly captive until the tale is over.
Bill Loehfelm will sign books at 6 p.m. on June 14 at The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.