An antihero is different from a complex character with just enough faults to balance the virtues; instead, he or she is more flawed or more evil than good. The antihero can be a darkly heroic, ends-justify-the-means type who uses ruthless methods to reach an unselfish goal. Or he could be a deliberately petty, flawed, hostile, cynical screw-up of a character that has flashes of nobility. Maureen in the crime thriller The Devil She Knows by Bill Loehfelm is the second type of antihero. She is the best thing about an already excellent book.
Maureen is a twenty-nine year old cocktail waitress living alone in New York City, who sees something she shouldn’t and must run for her life. Your average novel would take pains to make her endearing by giving her a dream to pursue (perhaps a career in performing arts), supporting characters to nurture (aging neighbors or an adoring boyfriend), and a sweet personality (self-confidence, optimism, and friendliness). But not The Devil She Knows. The author saddles Maureen with self-doubt and inertia. She drops out of night school and isn’t sure what she wants to do with her future. Her world is a harsh and lonely place, and since no one cuts her any slack, she doesn’t do favors for anyone. Not for the building superintendent’s icky son who hopes to trade minor repairs for sex. Not for her gorgeous coworker whose drug addiction creates more work for everybody else.
Okay, so far Maureen is a realistic and complex character – definitely not a Mary Sue. She is a mix of relatable insecurities, faults, and desires to better herself. Her good and bad traits seem to balance. But The Devil She Knows makes the daring decision to crank up Maureen’s flaws-and-faults quotient to put her in antihero territory. Subsequently, when a terrible crisis forces her to find inner strength, her success is even more emotionally satisfying to the reader than if she had started out as a more balanced, high-achieving, and morally upstanding heroine.
So how is she an antihero? Maureen isn’t just a hard-edged woman struggling with insecurity, inertia, and self-doubt. She deliberately makes unwise and selfish choices such as to sleep with her fatuous, married professor of literature. She snorts cocaine and drinks to excess. She feels strong temptation to try to steal her friend John from his girlfriend Molly. She lashes out with sharp remarks when she is afraid. When she gets to know a cop who becomes a surrogate father and mentor, she disregards his solid advice and does things her way.
How does the author keep Maureen relatable and likable? With all her bad habits and hard edges, Maureen could have been obnoxious. Her many, superficial faults outnumber her few, deep virtues, but her virtues outweigh her faults. This is because the good in her is significant. She is brave despite her considerable fear, smart, independent, and tough as nails. These sterling qualities run deep and are seldom seen, but they still excuse a lot of everyday cynicism and coke snorting.
In one remarkable scene, Maureen proves to the reader that even though she is a small, slight, young woman with not much education and even less money, she will not be intimidated by anyone, regardless of his size, strength, power, or wealth. The villain tries to force her to accept a ride home from her job. When she calls a cab, he subjects the driver to ethnic slurs and then tosses in a fifty-dollar bill for Maureen’s cab fare to show that his money enables him to vilify others without repercussions. As soon as the villain swaggers away, the cab driver takes out his fear on Maureen, telling her off for the behavior of her “boyfriend.” Maureen tells the driver to put the fifty in his pocket. She says she will pay her fare and the tip with her own money, and adds that the villain is not her [expletive] boyfriend. I have to admire her gritty personal integrity. This is an antihero worth rooting for.
Don’t miss The Devil She Knows: A Novel at Amazon.com.