I always feel a little beat up after reading a Gillian Flynn novel, battered and bruised by her vivid, sharp prose, her intensely unlikable characters, and her dark, that-makes-me-really-uncomfortable themes.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love them. I do. In a morbid, I-can’t-look-away sense. Gone Girl, of course, brought her to my attention, and then I backtracked to her earlier novels: Sharp Objects and now Dark Places. While Gone Girl provided psychological insight into the mind of a sociopath, and Sharp Objects dealt with Munchhausen Syndrome (a parent, usually a mother, who intentionally makes her child ill to get attention), Dark Places covers axe murders and devil-worship. Yeah, I know, but stay with me here.
Dark Places begins with 31 year-old Libby Day, who must come out of her habitual torpor when she realizes the trust fund she’s been living off of for 24 years is spent. The money had come from well-wishers after her mother and two sisters were slaughtered on their farm in rural Kansas in 1985, when Libby was 7. Her then 15 year-old brother Ben was convicted of the murders, and has been in prison ever since.
Now that the money is gone, Libby must face the impossible reality of getting a job, though isn’t qualified for anything that she can think of. She receives a letter from Lyle Wirth, a member of a group called The Kill Club. These are people who are interested in (or obsessed with) unsolved crimes, and The Kill Club believes Ben is innocent of her family’s murder. Lyle is willing to pay Libby to make an appearance for the group. Since she has no other source of income, she agrees.
Though put off by their weird obsession with her family, and convinced that they’re wrong about Ben’s innocence, Libby starts looking into the case after years of avoiding it, with the promise of more money from Lyle. As she begins her own digging, Libby starts to doubt herself: what if her testimony at 7 years old was coached, and put her innocent brother behind bars? Soon enough, it’s more than money that motivates her to get to the truth of what happened that day of January 2, 1985.
The book alternates between Libby of the present day (2009), and her mother Patty and brother Ben on the day of the murders. The three story lines keep you guessing right up to the very end: was it Lou Cates, the father of a girl who Ben was accused of molesting? Was it Trey Teepano, Ben’s devil-worshiping friend, and a bookie who had money owed to him by Ben’s loser father, Runner? Was it Runner, who was furious at his ex-wife for not giving him money he imagined she had? Or was it really Ben, an angry, frustrated, confused teenage farm boy who couldn’t take it anymore?
Dark Places taps into the wave of paranoia concerning child molestation and devil-worship that swept the nation in the 1980’s. If these things make you squirm-as well as animal mutilation, sexually aggressive preteen and teen girls, and the humiliating underbelly of poverty-then this aptly-titled book isn’t for you.
Though often grisly and disturbing, Flynn expertly handles her subject matter; it never feels gratuitous or exploitative. What kept me greedily turning the pages were the twists and turns that made me desperate to know whodunit and why.
There’s a movie version starring Charlize Theron, and if I watch it, I’ll review it here and compare to the book.
Have you read the book or seen the movie? Is Gillian Flynn too dark for you, or right up your alley? Drop a line here and we’ll talk about it!