My mom, she just never forgave me. I’d come home and tell her about something that happened at school and—and she’d just say, Really? Like I was lying, no matter what I said. I could have told her I ate mashed potatoes for lunch and she’d just go, Really?
Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn has had the good fortune of becoming a success and the ill fortune of becoming a brand. Thanks to Gone Girl, her name is now treated as synonymous with suspense novels about a certain kind of unreliable female narrator: a coolly neurotic liar with secrets and artfully-applied lipstick, a kind of smoothie blend of chills and suburbia. The worst of the post-Flynn crop of domestic suspense steal her symbols but not her substance, and they tend to particularly miss Flynn’s gamesmanship and the dark, potboiler-style fun she has with where her stories go. And of course the writers who imitate Flynn rarely bother imitating her other novels. There’s been no surge of overwrought Southern Gothics in the style of Sharp Objects and there has, of course, been no knock-off of her complex sophomore effort, Dark Places.
But to be fair, that might be because Dark Places is less in conversation with crime fiction than it is with true crime. If Gone Girl delights in the unreliable narrator, Dark Places is about unreliable narratives.
In early January, 1985, seven year-old Libby Day survived the brutal farmhouse massacre of her mother and two sisters. (Running outside and hiding saved her life, but cost her a finger and two toes from frostbite.) She testified that she saw her brother, fifteen year-old Ben, committing the murders. With a rumored background in Satanism that seemed to fit the words and symbols scrawled on the Day family’s walls, eyewitness testimony, no real alibi, and the whole town against him, Ben Day went to prison—where he remains twenty-four years later.
He’s in better psychological shape than his younger sister, whose life effectively stopped at her family’s death. She’s depressed and dissolute, an impulsive thief incapable of holding down a job, and, as the novel opens, about to run out of money. She’s been living for years on a fund set up by well-wishers, but the public good will has run out. There are other, fresher tragedies, and damaged adult Libby—“draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs”—is no longer the most compelling victim.
In order to make a little money—and maybe to spend a little time with the only people still interested in her family’s deaths—Libby finds herself attached to the Kill Club, a blend of prisoner advocates, armchair sleuths, and this:
We walked down the one floor to a basement door plastered with flyers: Booth 22: Hoardin’ Lizzie Borden! Collectible items for sale or swap! Booth 28: Karla Brown—Bite Marks Discussion. Booth 14: Role Play—Interrogate Casey Anthony! 15: Tom’s Terrible Treats—Now serving Jonestown Punch and Sweet Fanny Adams!
…The room was set up like a swap meet, divided into rows of booths created from cheap chain-link fencing. Each booth was a different murder. I counted maybe forty at first glance. A generator was barely igniting a string of lightbulbs, which hung from wires around the room, swaying in uneven time, illuminating faces at gruesome angles, a party of death masks.
The Kill Club is predominantly men, and most of the women Libby meets there are impassioned (and romantic) advocates of particular prisoners, including her brother. (An irritating imbalance, given the demographics of true crime readers.) If the Kill Club were all Flynn had to offer on true crime, it wouldn’t be much. It isn’t a realistic gathering of people, it’s a plot device, invented to provide Libby with whatever she, and the novel, needs: a setting both grotesque and personally challenging, absurdly generous sums of money, and a sounding board and possible friend in the form of treasurer Lyle Wirth. The Kill Club has some of the trappings of true crime obsession—the eternal debate over tastefulness, the tendency to choose a particular crime to focus one’s interest, the fierce partisanship “solvers” feel for their pet theories—but it isn’t where Flynn best evokes the genre.
What Flynn writes—what Flynn gets—isn’t mystery. It’s the way a crime presents a surface image—sometimes complex, sometimes apparently simple, sometimes spotted with inexplicable irregularities—that may never peel back to reveal the truth. In The Little Prince, de Saint Exupery’s narrator draws an elephant—but only in a rumpled hat-like shape. It’s an elephant that has been swallowed by a boa constrictor. In true crime, and in life, you have only the hat-like boa constrictor shape, and maybe someday you will know if it’s really an elephant inside, and maybe you won’t.
The pleasure of Dark Places is in the way the surface story is, again and again, told and then retold and redefined; an eternal true crime problem given satisfaction by the techniques of the novel. Bit by bit, Flynn exposes the elephant. This was a coincidence. That was a mostly unrelated crime. This was mass hysteria.
Arguably, the novel is over-plotted and the plot is overly reliant on chance. But Flynn is always working at the far edge of realism, always ready to tip over into horror (Sharp Objects) or pulp (Gone Girl). She has a strong Gothic streak, and Dark Places is, if anything, high-octane Midwestern Gothic, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mish-mash of failing farms, Satanic Panic, rural poverty, and small town gossip and class envy. At one point Libby goes to find her deadbeat father, who may or may not be living on a toxic dump-site where the ground is soaked with arsenic from old grasshopper bait, because that’s the kind of set-piece Flynn loves. (And one which thematically reappears in Gone Girl in the form of an abandoned shopping mall.) Her excesses work in her favor here, more or less, even if what she’s overplaying is a technical skill as much as it is an atmosphere. True crime, after all, is not generally considered to be in good taste. Flynn offers up a kind of intellectual tawdriness here—Every Secret Bared! You Won’t Believe the Shocking Truth! And at its best, it feels revelatory, a reminder of the sheer irreducible complexity of any event involving more than one person.
Sometimes these revelations are minor. Libby reminisces at one point about how her aunt always bought her a T-shirt cheerfully proclaiming their hometown, Kinnakee, as the heart of America, telling her the town’s name meant “magical little woman” in “Indian.” Adult Libby already thinks she has an inside truth:
[Kinnakee] once claimed to be the geographic center of the forty-eight contiguous United States. The heart of America. It was a big deal back in the ‘80s, when we were all patriotic. Other cities in Kansas made a grab for the title, but we ignored them, stubbornly, proudly. It was the city’s only point of interest… Turns out we were wrong after all. Lebanon, Kansas, is the official center of the United States. Kinnakee was working off bad information.
But it doesn’t occur to Libby to question her aunt’s attempt at a particularly white kind of feminism. It takes her mother, Patty’s, point-of-view to confirm that “it just meant rock or crow or something.”
Flynn’s real victory, and the real evidence that she’s going to be a modern master of the sensation novel, is that she knows how to deliver this pleasure without encouraging any kind of smugness. She’s not interested in setting up the reader to feel superior to the characters. She expects, for example, that her readers will come to the novel already knowing the story of the Satanic Panic and already distrusting that explanation for Ben’s behavior—but instead of crafting a storyline about the obvious wrongness of the past, she gets into a more unsettling, more complex examination of the urge for destruction, the unease between parents and their children, and the desire for some form of social capital, even if it’s only fear. In Flynn, it’s rarely a battle between misunderstood innocence and outraged stupidity. She has a nuanced understanding of the way small, confused evils can be exaggerated into ones that are larger, gaudier, and easier to combat, and she’s capable of writing with compassion about all sides of that equation.
Dark Places has its faults. But the reason it hasn’t found as many imitators as Gone Girl isn’t because it’s a lesser novel; rather, it’s because its strengths require too much talent and too much understanding. Someone could steal the Kill Club. It’s harder to steal the knowledge of how life can spiral into catastrophe—and how exploring that truth can become an obsession.