Book Review: Dark Places (2009)
by Alan F. Zundel
I don’t like to admit it, but I can get fascinated by the sordid side of life. Clearly I am not alone, since Gillian Flynn has so many readers.
“Dark Places” has a lot of sordid stuff in it: multiple murders, callous sex, drug abuse, alcoholism, lying, stealing, vomiting, squalor. Oh yeah, and Satanic animal sacrifice. But those were not the book’s primary attractions.
Its primary attractions were Flynn’s lively writing style, the unique voice of the central character, and a mystery needing resolution. Those are what kept me reading.
“Dark Places” was published five years before Flynn’s best-seller, “Gone Girl,” and like the latter was recently made into a movie. Since reading “Gone Girl” after seeing the movie detracted from the experience somewhat (I kept picturing Ben Affleck, an unwelcome mental reflex), I decided this time I would read the book first and maybe then see the movie.
Only now I kept thinking of “Gone Girl” as I read. “Dark Places” in some ways seems like a warm-up for “Gone Girl.” It’s not just that both books focus on the unsavory aspects of human nature. They both also have a similar structure, beginning with a mystery and alternating chapters between characters, one in the present and another (actually, several this time) in the past.
The central character is Libby Day, a survivor of her family’s mass murder twenty-four years previously. Libby is an interesting character, sympathetic but not appealing. She has a multitude of vices. She steals things. She’s a slob. She’s rude to people, sullen and easily angered.
What makes her interesting is her relentless candor, both about herself and the people she encounters. Few of those people are appealing either, and it’s fun to read her takes on them.
What makes her sympathetic is her plight. Libby was seven years old when she saw her mother and two sisters slaughtered, barely escaping with her life. In the aftermath of the event she was coached into testifying against her older brother, who is now in prison with a life sentence. Libby was shuttled from relative to relative for years, none of them able to handle the anti-social behaviors induced by her trauma.
Plus now that she’s an adult, she’s broke and needs money badly. You want to make a character universally sympathetic? Show them needing money badly. Apparently we all can relate to that.
To get money she accepts an offer to speak to a club devoted to famous murders and finds herself being grilled about her belief that her brother was the murderer. The doubt raised in her mind by this, and her subsequent pursuit of answers to nagging questions (at first just to get more money from the club), drive the plot.
Chapters alternate between Libby’s present-day quest and the events of the day leading up to the murder. As the story proceeds, both threads aim in the same direction: the revelation of what really happened that night—but not without a lot of red herrings along the way.
Flynn does a good job conjuring up a variety of memorable characters in “Dark Places,” but doesn’t establish a relationship between any of them that works as well dramatically as Nick relying on his sister or Nick contending against his wife in “Gone Girl.”
And although Flynn’s same skillful wielding of the English language is on display here, it’s not always as on-point as in the later book. I would give you a few examples of misfired phrases, but I didn’t note them at the time and now can’t find them. I guess the fact that I did not want to interrupt my reading to take note of them is itself a tribute to her writing.
The resolution of the mystery worked well enough, but I was dissatisfied in that part of the solution came not through the efforts of Libby and her murder-club sidekick Lyle, but an off-stage confession. That kind of made her efforts beside the point.
Overall, though, a decent read. To repeat: lively writing, interesting character, mystery. But the graphic violence is more in the style of a horror story than a mystery, so be forewarned.
Unless you like that kind of sordid stuff.