Dark Places is the second Gillian Flynn novel I’ve read, and I’m going to need to take a significant break before I give Sharp Objects a try, because this shit is dark. Do you want to explore the unfathomable depths of human depravity? Just go read some Gillian Flynn. She looks like such a nice lady in her author photos, but she writes such chilling, gory scenes that it makes me want to curl up in my sock drawer and sleep for days. I’m still never going to get over what happened to Desi in Gone Girl. I’m afraid, you guys. This is why I’m not allowed to watch true crime shows or horror movies. I can’t get it out of my head!
Dark Places is Flynn’s second novel, and like the other two, it takes place in Missouri. The story revolves around Libby Day, who, as a small child, was the sole survivor of a murderous rampage which resulted in the deaths of her mother and two sisters. Her eldest sibling and only brother, Ben, then 14 years old, was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison. When the novel begins, it’s been over 20 years since the murders, and Libby Day is running out of money—the trust fund set up for her after her family was killed is just about dried up, and she hasn’t made any royalties from a ghost-written book published around one of the anniversaries. She’s pretty desperate, which is why when Lyle Wirth, the head of the “Kill Club”1, approaches her for a speaking gig at their convention, she agrees. However, when she arrives, she discovers that most of the Kill Club members believe that Ben was wrongly accused of the crime, and are seeking to disprove the state’s case against him and help him win his next appeal.2
This, of course, raises the question: if Ben didn’t kill his mother and sisters, then who did? And why did Ben confess to the crime in court? The book is told from three perspectives—Libby narrates the present day, while in alternating chapters we follow Ben and Patty Day, their mother, starting from the morning of the day the murders took place and eventually narrating the murders in real time3—with the goal of answering these questions.
Flynn is a masterful writer of thrillers—I honestly stayed up way too late a couple of nights reading this book because it had its hooks in me so deeply. I found myself re-reading passages that upset me the most, mostly Libby’s remembrance of what happened on the night her family was murdered. The way Flynn describes the carnage is just horrifying:
Debby was sobbing, screaming Mommymommymommymichelle and then there was the sound of an axe. I knew even then what it was. Metal on air—that was the sound—and after the sound of the swing came the sound of a soft thunk and a gurgle and Debby made a grunt and a sound like sucking for air.4
I’ll spare you the rest of that scene, because it’s just gruesome and I kind of want to cry and/or be violently ill whenever I read it, but I think that’s what makes it good somehow. The writing is visceral and terrifying and there’s no fade-to-black or sugar-coating. I think that’s what makes Flynn such a success in this genre.
I won’t spoil the ending because it’s actually really good and it’s so twisted that it would take me too long to explain, anyway. If you liked Gone Girl, I highly recommend Dark Places.5
- It’s a club where they try to solve murders and do research on faulty convictions. Lyle makes Libby nervous at first because he has a sort of “serial killer” vibe, but he just likes learning about them.
- She also finds out that a lot of the women in the club, in particular, hate her guts for telling the prosecution that she saw him kill her mother and sisters. Keep in mind that she was about six when this happened. There are multiple confrontation scenes between Libby and some of these women, and they are infuriating.
- Or real time from Patty’s perspective, I guess.
- Flynn, Gillian. 2009. Dark Places. New York: Broadway Books. Page 42.
- I actually liked it better than Gone Girl (although if we’re talking movies, Gone Girl is infinitely superior to Dark Places, mostly because the casting was all wrong for the latter and they eliminated a lot of what made Ben such a compelling character).