Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

21546135Fiction — print. Broadway, 2010. 350 pgs. Purchased.

In the 1980s, seven-year-old Libby Day’s mother and two older sisters were murdered by her brother, Ben. Each of Ben’s victims were murdered in a different manner — Michelle was strangled in her bed, Debby was cut by an axe, and their mother, Patty, was killed with a shotgun. Libby, who escaped and hid outside during January in Kansas, lost several of her fingers and toes to frostbite.

The tragedy captured the imagination of locals and the nation, who considered the mass murders to be one of many done in deference to Satan during the 1980s. Now, twenty-five years later, there are still a handful of people who are obsessed with the crime — people who doubt Libby’s account of the night and believe Ben is innocent. In their minds, no killer would murder his victims in three different ways during a single night.

Out of funds, Libby agrees to work with this group for a series of small payouts — a couple hundred bucks for finding her deadbeat father (the aptly named Runner) or for selling off personal items owned by her sisters and mother. Agreeing to work with this group, though, means Libby must face her brother and rehash the worst night of her life together.

This novel jumps back and forth between the past and the present; each chapter changing both the time period and the character being followed. At one point, we see where Ben had gone in the hours leading up to his mother and sisters’ death and then — skip ahead a chapter — the reader is shown the frantic worry of his mother during this same time period. The narrative structure is not entirely uniform backtracking in order to explain or examine or place into context a fact Libby has learned in the present.

Yet, somehow, this novels feel like the more “traditional” of Flynn’s three crime novels that I have read. (Her fourth was published in November of last year.) She’s fixated on the whodunit rather than the psychological, which is surprising given her other two novels and how the novel is set up to be a response to the so-called “Satanic Panic” or “Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare”of the 1980s where daycare workers were accused to abusing children in acts of worship towards Satan. Sounds nutty, but true. Elements of this are utilized in the book — ritual Satanic practices either occurring or being rumored to have occurred, young girls accusing Ben of abusing them — but Flynn never really goes into the psychology of these events. They happen or they don’t; they move the plot along or they don’t.

The end, though? Flynn pushes her horribly unlikable characters (a staple of her novels) off the cliff of believable happenstance and wreaks the whole novel. It’s almost as though Flynn grew to like her characters, but realized she wasn’t allowed to like them after making the reader hate them so settled for a hodgepodge ending with a “twist” to keep her from having to pull the trigger, so to say. If this has been the first novel of hers I read, I certainly would not have lunged across the table at a used book sale to grab her others.

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4 thoughts on “Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

    1. I was the same way until I saw her two previous books at a used book sale. For $1 a piece, I figured I would give them a go. Gone Girl is, by far, her best so if you’ve started there, I’m not sure it’s worth going “backwards”.

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