#42 / Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places (ebook; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) 4.5 stars

Opening line: I have a meanness in me, real as an organ.

I’m working my backwards through Gillian Flynn’s works after reading the incredible Gone Girl (see review here). Dark Places is the author’s second novel, and confirms my impression that she’s one of the most talented and original voices in crime today. Her novels are not necessarily perfect, but they’re extremely well written and have a narrative energy that makes them a red-hot reading experience. In the case of Dark Places, Flynn also takes on a very difficult subject and does so in a way that is both sensitive and groundbreaking. There is an authorial bravery at work here that I very much admire.

The principal narrator of Dark Places is thirty-one year old Libby Day, who in 1985, at the age of seven, survived a night-time massacre at the family farm that left her mother Patty and sisters Michelle and Debby dead. Her brother Ben, a teenager at the time, was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life imprisonment. Twenty-four years on, Libby is living alone, and has used up most of the $300,000 fund set up in her name after the murders. Petulant about the public’s dwindling interest in her, she resembles a former child film-star who can’t comprehend why the offers have dried up. So when she gets a call from a young man called Lyle, offering her money to appear as a ‘special guest’ at his none too subtly named ‘Kill Club’, she agrees to go. There she encounters a group of obsessives who have pored over every detail of the murders, and who are convinced that Ben is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. They offer her more money to talk to others close to the case – effectively positioning her as an investigator into her own family’s murders – and she accepts, partly for the cash and partly due to her own desire for closure. Her often darkly humorous account of events in the present is interspersed with sombre flashbacks to the day of the murders, narrated from the point of view of her mother Patty and brother Ben.

One of the key strengths of this novel for me was its characterisation. Libby, the sole survivor of the massacre, is clearly not depicted as a traditional tragic victim. She is spiky, surly, obsessed with money, and appears to have alienated everyone around her. But at the same time, hers is the voice that is the most moving in the novel, because through her, Flynn vividly realises the themes of grief, trauma and loss. Patty and Ben are also brilliantly portrayed: the thirty-two-year-old single mom trying to look after four children and keep the family farm going during a recession, and the troubled teenager struggling with the transition into manhood. All three characters give a sobering insight into the long-term effects of grinding poverty. Class is a big theme and is deftly handled.

There are some graphic descriptions of violence in the novel that readers may find upsetting. However, my own feeling is that Flynn uses these descriptions to convey the reality of the massacre as a violent and traumatic event, rather than with gratuitous intent. Crucially, we are told the physical details of what happened early in the novel, thus avoiding an excessive build up of readerly curiosity or their use as part of the narrative pay-off. There were perhaps just a few small details at the end of the novel that didn’t ring entirely true to me – a dash too much rural noir – but these don’t obscure the novel’s genuine strengths. Libby and Patty’s voices have stayed with me in particular.

In terms of larger literary influences, Dark Places surely reaches back to In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s seminal 1966 account of the massacre of a farming family in Kansas (Libby tells us firmly that her farm is near Kansas City, Missouri rather than Kansas City, Kansas, which I read as a neat in-joke that both acknowledges Capote’s influence and asserts an authorial distance from him). I’m also reminded of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s novel The Murder Farm (see my review here), which is very different in style and length, but is another successful literary re-imagining of this kind of case.

By coincidence, an article by Sarah Weinman recently appeared in Book Beast entitled ‘The Original Gone Girls: Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Other Forgotten Pioneers of Crime Fiction’. It focuses on earlier contributions to the psychological thriller by women writers and is well worth checking out.

Mrs. Peabody awards Dark Places an accomplished and memorable 4.5 stars

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16 thoughts on “#42 / Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

  1. I am glad you liked this, I read this a few years ago before Gone Girl and really enjoyed it, we do seem to have similar tastes. I have been wanting to read her first novel which I think is Sharp Objects for ages, must get round to it. Meanwhile I have read More Beer and One Man One Murder and loved them, Arjouni rocks!

    • I think I preferred Dark Places (marginally) to Gone Girl: it seemed to have a bit more depth in terms of its examination of themes like grief, poverty and class. I’ll definitely read Sharp Objects at some point too, but will have a little break first. Plenty of breathing space required between these ones!

      Very glad to hear that you’re enjoying the other Arjounis 🙂

  2. As always, you have written a great review, but I am not convinced that I can read this author’s works. Although I did read and like In Cold Blood years ago, so maybe. But especially I appreciate you pointing to the article on Sarah Weinman’s book. I had heard of that, but now I know more about it and the authors featured are very interesting.

    • Flynn’s works are definitely not for everyone: the responses to Gone Girl on the blog were pretty divided, and I can see that her style of writing and the darkness of her subject matter would not appeal to all. There are clear parallels with In Cold Blood, but the whole thing is given a very Flynn twist.

      Yes – Weinman’s book looks really interesting, doesn’t it? I always appreciate hearing about writers who may have been forgotten or passed over (and lots of good women writers fall into that category, alas).

  3. Gillian Flynn’s books are not to my taste. I read one and it haunted me for months; it’s not my thing. I just don’t like the level of violence and sadism here or in books by other authors.
    Glad you liked it.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I can see why Flynn’s novels might linger in the mind and possibly disturb. Dark Places has certainly stayed with me a long time (but in more of a good way – I found it thought-provoking). It does have violence, as I mention in the review, but it’s not sadistic – thankfully. I was more disturbed by the violence in the latest Jo Nesbo, to be honest, which seemed to me to be largely gratuitous.

  4. I read Sharp Objects. I thought it was a rough read and stayed with me; there was sadism and other disturbing behavior.
    Now that you mention Nesbo’s latest book, I may give it a pass. I will read some of his books but the violence levels is a factor. I’ve read two, which have been okay, but I haven’t read the most violent.

    • I’ve actually only read two – Redbreast and Police (which I was sent by the publisher). But even though I’ve sometimes wanted read others, I’ve often been put off when reading the blurb on the back. Too many women dying in too many unpleasant ways. And I’m not a big fan of serial killer novels either. I very much like Nesbo in conversation or in interview though. He has some interesting things to say about the genre.

  5. I suggest you read Nemesis. No serial killers, but really intriguing plots, twists and turns. And some discussion of social issues regarding the treatment of Roma people. It’s very cleverly done.
    And, yes, I, too, have reached the end of my endurance with serial killers. We need really well-conceived plots with culprits, such as family, friends, neighbors, accountants, bankers, attorneys and others who knew the victims and had reasons to kill them — not sociopaths who choose victims because they have a profile of who to target, etc. Boring and gory. Also, leave children alone, please.
    Now it seems as if nearly every series is going back to either Mafioso or WWII. This is okay to a point, but then those will be overdone, too. Some new ideas are needed.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Kathy. That one does sound interesting.

      I’ve had a little bit of a bad patch with my reading lately: too many serial killers and/or daft endings. And I’m feeling the need for a bit of historical crime as well – not enough of that in the last couple of months. I don’t mind the WW2 angle for obvious reasons (fodder for my research!), and have just had Ostland through the post, which looks like it will be an absorbing read. I’m currently half-way through the latest Persson (He who Kills the Dragon), and am enjoying that greatly too.

  6. I just finished J.K. Rowling/Richard Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. It is a murder mystery, but is quite wordy and detailed, not the preference for many crime fiction readers. I was getting impatient but then it got very interesting. Obviously, the author is extremely smart — and knows every nook and cranny of the neighborhood, as she describes everything. I can see avid mystery fans getting frustrated as it is slow.
    However, I ended up liking it. The plot has lots of twists and turns, no serial killers and no gratuitous violence. If one can get through the minutiae of all of the celebrity characters’ lives, and stick with the main plot, it works.
    I needed a non-violent book, which was fairly calm, without blood and gore.
    i read Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders, set in 1943 Melbourne, which is about Nazis and psychopaths, with lots of anti-Semitism and gore, so I needed a calm book. And
    the Rowling/Galbraith one was fine. But it’s not for every mystery fan.
    Did you read The Ghost Riders of Ordebec yet?

    • Quite a few people I know have read the Rowling now, and their feedback has been pretty good on the whole. I’ve always thought that her big strength was plotting, so I’m not surprised to find that she can make a success of a crime narrative.

      I’d not heard of Gott’s novel before. Not sure I like the sound of it as a reading experience, but it’s another one for my research database, so thank you very much!

      No, I haven’t read The Ghost Riders yet, but will, I promise. Looking forward to it!

  7. Pingback: The ultimate Christmas gift: an international crime novel! | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  8. Pingback: Mother knows best? Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (USA) and Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian (Spain) | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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