This book has been selected as a Great Read.Dark Places

Author: Gillian Flynn

Shaye Areheart Books, 2009

Best ebook deal: Seattle Public Library

Filed under: Mystery

I picked up Dark Places by accident, off the new ebook releases list at the public library. I had never heard of Gillian Flynn, and I didn’t much care for the title, so I wasn’t expecting the riveting mystery I got.

I’ve learned subsequently that Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, was well received and nominated for an Edgar and several other awards. So perhaps previous Flynn readers won’t be as surprised as I was that she can write a hell of a mystery. This book grabs you by page 50; I had a hard time putting it down after that, and in fact I couldn’t put it down for the last 150 pages.

Dark Places is about Libby Day, whose family was murdered 24 years ago by her brother, Ben. Ben’s been in jail for all of those 24 years—convicted on 7-year-old Libby’s eyewitness testimony—and she’s never gone to see him. After Libby meets the members of a niche “Kill Club” whose hobby is investigating her family’s case, she begins investigating the murders herself, and becomes less certain of what she saw that night.

Flynn packs the story full of twists and subplots and vivid characters, Satanism and viciousness and gut-wrenching crimes, leaving very little sag and very little room to breathe. This is not the Great American Novel, but if you’re looking for a great mystery, look no further. Just be warned: there’s a lot of violence and a lot of not-for-the-squeamish in this book.

The opening of Dark Places leaves a lot to be desired. Specifically, there were three elements that had me second-guessing my choice of reading.

First, Flynn’s style, especially in the first 50 pages, is rhythmic to the point of repetitiveness. You can see it in her titles: Sharp Objects, Dark Places. Simple Crimes, Crooked People, Jagged Edges. That kind of writing is a penny a word at the James Patterson Bookstore.

Second, Flynn’s protagonist, Libby, is self-pitying to the point that I didn’t pity her—brutally slaughtered family and all—after about five pages. She doesn’t have any money because she’s never bothered to work: she’s lived off the donations strangers sent her after hearing about the murders, and there’s finally nothing left. She spends most of her opening monologue jocularly discussing suicide and talking about how she hasn’t done anything except feel bad for herself in her entire life.

Third, the book is half flashback. The narrative alternates between Libby’s consciousness in the present, and the perspectives of Patty (Libby’s mom) and Ben (brother/alleged killer) in 1985, the year of the murders. It goes like this: Libby, Patty, Libby, Ben, repeat. As a general rule, I don’t like flashbacks in mystery novels, and I was dreading these.

After all that, I was not a happy reader after 20 pages. But somewhere in the next 20 after that, my complaints were nullified one by one and I came around.

Flynn’s prose quickly takes a backseat to her plot and characters, both of which she’s much better at. She writes excellent dialogue, and creates a vivid and realistic array of teenagers, kids, hillbillies, junkies, Devil worshippers, worn-out moms, concerned parents, and potential killers.

Libby, after a protracted opening whine, clams up on the self-pity and gets on with the business of investigating.

And the flashbacks were surprisingly good. Patty and Ben each have their own compelling storylines, and each scene reveals something new about the mystery, something that fits into Libby’s present-day investigation. I still don’t like flashbacks in mysteries—it still feels like gimmickry and the saggiest parts of the narrative happen when we have to wait for Libby to figure out something we already know from a flashback—but Flynn executes it as well as I’ve ever seen.

The ending is not quite as good as the rest of the book, and there are a few minor believability issues, but for a gripping page-turner like this, I’ll forgive those little quibbles.

The only complaint I have left is this: whoever installed the padlock in the cover art did it wrong; the hinge flap is supposed to cover the screws. I guess that’s forgiveable, too.

Similar books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon; The Likeness, by Tana French (French won the Best First Novel Edgar the year after Flynn’s first novel was nominated—for my money Dark Places is better than The Likeness)