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.