Dark Places

Dark Places

The Days were a clan that mighta lived long
But Ben Day’s head got screwed on wrong
That boy craved dark Satan’s power
So he killed his family in one nasty hour

Little Michelle he strangled in the night
Then chopped up Debby: a bloody sight
Mother Patty he saved for last
Blew off her head with a shotgun blast

Baby Libby somehow survived
But to live through that ain’t much of a life.

The above epigraph to Gillian Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, purports to be a schoolyard chant from 1985. It’s actually a summation of narrator Libby Day’s dark past that she’s trying to forget. Only 7 years old when her family was murdered, Libby testified against her brother, Ben, who was believed to be most a Satanist and a child molester. Now, however, a group called the Kill Club is looking into the crime and believes Ben was innocent. They try to recruit a reluctant Libby into their investigation, assuming that at age 7 she was guided by the prosecution to say just what they wanted and is now ready to recant. Libby has no interest in recanting. She’s not interested in revisiting what happened that night at all, but she does need the money the club is offering for her help in getting them in touch with people who know more. Of course, her assistance ends up piquing her curiosity, and she’s soon seeking the truth for its own sake.

Libby’s present-day narrative alternates with third-person accounts of what her mother, Patty, and brother, Ben, were doing on the day of the murders. It was an eventful day. Patty’s financial troubles come to a head and she’s likely to lose the family farm. Her ex-husband, Runner, comes by looking for money she doesn’t have, and accusations arise that Ben has been molesting preteen girls. Each one of these events provide suspects and motives, but none of them quite add up. Flynn skillfully builds the tension, following Ben and Patty’s day, along with Libby’s investigation, until the full story is revealed in both timelines.

One of the things I loved about Gone Girl was the fact that Flynn doesn’t flinch. She lets her stories get dark. Sharp Objects is also seriously dark, but less disciplined than her later efforts. In fact, when I consider these three novels in order, I can see a real progression in her skills. With each book, her characterization gets a little sharper, a little deeper, and a little more mean. The big problem I had with Sharp Objects, which I enjoyed well enough, was that the characters weren’t believable. That wasn’t an issue here. This doesn’t provide the level of breath-taking surprise that Gone Girl does, but it offers some enjoyably unexpected turns of plot. Flynn lays out enough information for readers to figure out what’s happening, but it’s hard to grasp the full story until it comes together near the end. I got about halfway there, but wasn’t entirely sure I was right because just enough pieces didn’t fit.

With Ruth Rendell’s death last year, I’ve wondered if anyone is writing dark psychological crime novels today whose work I could enjoy as reliably as I do Rendell’s books. I think that writer might be Gillian Flynn. I’m skeptical about her upcoming Hamlet adaptation for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, but I’ll probably check it out. And if she gets back to her dark thrillers, I’ll definitely be reading them.

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10 Responses to Dark Places

  1. I totally agree that you can see a progression in Flynn’s writings through her three books. Dark Places is head and shoulders above Sharp Objects, and Gone Girl is head and shoulders above Dark Places. Which, I always really like that, watching an author come into her powers. I feel the same way about NK Jemisin and Helen Oyeyemi.

  2. You know, whenever I read reviews of Gillian Flynn’s books, I want to read her, but I just hated “Gone Girl.” It wasn’t really dark in the way I like dark, if that makes any sense.
    But someday I might still have to try this one. You’ve made it sound very intriguing.

  3. I’ve read all of them and I think Dark Places might be my favorite, though I think part of it is the excellent audio narration. Gone Girl was the first one I read (so the longest ago and hardest to remember) and I think it’s more polished than the others, but I sort of like the unpolishedness, if that makes sense. I wasn’t especially keen on her novella, The Grownup, but I am dying for her to write another novel.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve avoided her novella, as none of the reviews have been particularly good, but I’m ready for a new full-length novel. Her Hamlet update isn’t coming until 2021. I hope she’ll have another novel in the meantime!

  4. Heather says:

    I’ve read all three of her books and while I was really impressed with Gone Girl, this book is my favorite of hers. I think what I loved so much about it is the humanity in it – that final scene at the end, when what happened to this family is revealed, was so heartbreaking. And REAL. Gone Girl didn’t have as much of that “this could happen to someone I know” feeling as Dark Places did.

    • Teresa says:

      The real story was very sad, I agree. Gone Girl was a lot of things, but sad wasn’t one of them. It’s interesting, though, that this felt more real to you than GG because, for me, it was the opposite. Funny how that works sometimes.

  5. Anne Simonot says:

    I enjoyed Dark Places far more than GG, whose characters just didn’t feel “real” to me. I kept thinking, who does these things? Do I know one person who would actually behave like this? Not just the extreme things, but even Amy’s yearly anniversary scavenger hunt/quiz for Nick irritated the hell out of me. I thought Dark Places was more believable and just a much better book.

    • Teresa says:

      Amy and Nick were over-the-top for sure, but there was a lot about the dynamic and built-up resentment that felt real to me. It’s a pattern that felt real, even if the specifics didn’t. Some of the Satanism stuff seemed to be stretching it in Dark Places, but I think Flynn likes to take things to extremes.

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