Reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl for the first time ignited my love of thriller and I’ve been chasing the high that only an epic mind-bending twist can provide ever since. Unfortunately, if I had a pound of every book that was advertised as being ‘the next Gone Girl‘ that went on to disappoint me, I’d be able to quit my job and read full time. Time has taught me that only Gillian Flynn can be compared to Gillian Flynn and so my solution to this dilemma has been to slowly ration out Flynn’s earlier work and savour them like sweets.
Dark Places is Flynn’s second novel and was originally published in 2010. Our protagonist is Libby Day, whose entire family was massacred in what appeared to be a Satanic ritual when she was just seven years old. Her older brother Ben was convicted of the murders and Libby’s testimony was instrumental in putting him in prison for the rest of his life. The novel begins twenty five years later, with Libby now a highly dysfunctional adult in serious need of some cash (and therapy, so much therapy). She’s approached by an unorthodox club of true crime enthusiasts who are willing to pay her a lot of money to have her answer their questions about the murder of her family. She reluctantly consents, only to find that they believe that her brother Ben is innocent and that the real killer is still walking free. In exchange for payment, Libby agrees to reach out to various figures from her past to attempt to understand what really happened that night and what she discovers leaves her questioning everything she thought she knew about her family, her life and herself.
One thing I love about Gillian Flynn novels is that it’s impossible to trust anyone, even the narrator. Our protagonist, Libby, begins the novel with a very fixed idea of what occurred on the night of the massacre but doubts begin to creep in as she confronts the various figures who knew her family around the time of the killings. In a lesser novel, one would assume that Libby’s older brother Ben being found guilty of the murders means that he’s the only one we can be certain isn’t responsible for the murders, however Flynn manages to keep the reader questioning reality throughout through the cunning use of a three-way split perspective. The novel is variously narrated by Libby in the present day and by Ben and their mother, Patty, on the day of the massacre in 1985. Because everyone has their own version of the truth, this device leads to the misconceptions and half-truths at the heart of the story to slowly unfurl in a way that keeps the reader guessing until almost the last moment.
Another thing I really enjoyed about this book is it articulated a lot of what I find most uncomfortable about the recent true crime craze. These days podcasts like My Favourite Murder and documentaries like Making A Murderer have become increasingly popular but they’ve always left me with a feeling of unease. What does our consumption of these tragedies say about us? What does it do to the victims and their families to see their most intimate memories dissected by strangers? Dark Places attempts to answer these questions through Libby’s interactions with the members of the Kill Club, a group of true crime enthusiasts who believe they know more about the murder of her family than she does and are willing to pay her large amounts of money for personal items that belonged to her dead sisters. All the interactions with the Kill Club made me deeply uncomfortable and honestly furious on Libby’s behalf. Seeing them through Libby’s eyes made me understand that the consumption of true crime necessitates the retraumatisation of victims and that their pain, suffering and lived experience is often ignored in the pursuit of the ‘real truth’ of what happened. Flynn’s deft handling of the tension between Libby and her sponsors at the Kill Club throws this into razor sharp relief.
All of this tension, confusion and deceit culminates in the big twist. In the past, I’ve been burned many times by promises of ‘twists you’ll never seen coming’ that actually just utterly nonsensical endings. What distinguishes Flynn as a true master of the genre is that her twists are always satisfying, make sense and you always kick yourself for not figuring it our earlier. Like all good twists, the answer is dangled in front of your face early in the novel and there are sufficient clues dropped throughout that you can almost put the pieces together but the answer remains tantalisingly out of reach until almost the last second. I’ll say no more for fear of accidentally spoiling anything, but suffice to say that Dark Places will not only keep you turning pages but will have you questioning the generic expectations of the thriller itself.