Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Last week I finished reading Dark Places (2009), by Gillian Flynn.  Like many other readers I anxiously devoured her best seller Gone Girl last summer and promptly got copies of her two earlier novels. I read Sharp Objects right away, but didn't get around to Dark Places until now. I’m glad I picked it up. This is one disturbing, riveting, thrilling, book. Although I didn't guess the exact solution of the mystery, I was right about one big part of it, but I don't think this is a who-done-it kind of mystery. This is more a book about creating an atmosphere—an atmosphere of sheer menace. And boy, does it succeed.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places alternates between various narratives. It begins with Libby Day, the lone survivor of a the murder of her family, 25 years later. As a 7 year old she escaped and testified to seeing her 15 year old brother kill her mother and sisters. After coasting for 25 years on the money donated to her by well-wishers, Libby needs money and agrees to appear at Kill Club, a convention for true crime obsessives and conspiracy theorists. I have to admit, as a person who's read multiple books on the Leo Frank case and the sinking of the Titanic, I was hooked from here on in. 

To bilk more money out of Kill Club--who believe her brother is innocent--Libby agrees to get in touch with the other possible suspects to discover the real killer. This reminded me of a device Agatha Christie used in both Five Little Pigs and Sleeping Murder, and it's a great premise. But Flynn adds another twist--she alternates the contemporary narrative of Libby with third person narratives from the point of view of her brother Ben and of her mother Patty, from the days leading up to the murder. This technique builds the suspense brilliantly, as Libby gets closer to uncovering the truth, the readers are learning parts of the backstory she'll never know. So the book ends up being a cross between the Agatha Christie murder in retrospect and the intercutting between past and present of A. S. Byatt's Possession and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Being a big fan of all these things, needless to say, I loved it. 

Something else about this book really got to me personally. Whenever Libby is thinking about the night of the murders she drops the phrase "darkplace" to indicate a retreat to the deep dark depths of the horror of her memory, from which the novel takes it's name. All of us, even those of us who haven't experienced anything like the horrors the heroine of this novel lived through, have our own dark places. Personally, I've always been upset by violence, and I feel less bothered by that now. That's just my dark place.

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