Gillian Flynn’s head must be a dark place. Dark Places was her first novel and, having read it last, I was relieved that the female protagonist was not twisted or evil. Her worst faults were laziness and a milk kleptomania, which was understandable given her horrid childhood.
Libby Day survived the massacre of her family in their Midwestern farmhouse late at night. One sister was strangled in her bed, another was chopped down with an axe, and her mother was shot in the face and chopped. Libby escaped through a window and lost a finger and a couple of toes to frostbite from hiding in the woods. Her older brother, Ben, was charged with the murders and sent to prison, in part due to her coached “eyewitness” testimony.
The novel begins with Libby’s banker telling her that the funds donated by concerned citizens when she was a child have run dry and that she needs to find a way to make her own living. Libby has not made much of herself and her guilt over having survived is obvious. She has anger to spare, which includes plenty for herself. Desperate to avoid the work world, Libby agrees to meet with the Kill Club (for cash) to talk about her family. That visit leads her to talk to the people involved in the demise of her family, first for cash, then on her own quest for the truth as Libby slowly wakes from the haze she seems to have lived in since that night.
Gillian Flynn is dark, but she is also skilled at slowly drawing a reader in and feeding just enough of the story to keep the pages turning. She intersperses Libby’s investigation with diary-like chapters from Libby’s mother and brother. Her mother is a sympathetic character–single mother of four children left to run her parents’ farm alone and saddled with a huge debt accumulated by her good-for-nothing ex-husband–but she is also weak. In a terrible series of chapters, Patty Day realizes one of her girls has peed the bed and the sheets reek of urine, yet she is overwhelmed by the events of the day and does not change them and the sheets remain urine-soaked the night of the murders. Benign neglect that does not always seem so benign, especially when it comes to Ben.
Ben is a teenage boy in poverty and the head of a family of four women. He rides his bike in the winter cold back and forth to school to work as the weekend janitor, where he tries to avoid being seen by the athletes. He is a skinny, hungry, tired young man who is mocked by his no-good father, his classmates, one of his younger sisters (Michelle), and even his girlfriend. He begins a friendship with a pretty fifth-grade girl who embodies all of the privilege he wishes he had, but even that friendship goes bad as she claims he molested her. Ben is sympathetic, but also dark and dark enough that Flynn lets us believe may have been guilty right to the end. As in her other novels, guilt and innocence are not clear-cut categories for Flynn. Instead there are degrees of guilt and shades of innocence. Although Libby is the protagonist, Ben was the most memorable character of the novel, perhaps because he remains emotionally static, trapped in the time of the massacre and the teenage drama that surrounded it.
As in most thrillers, the “whodunit” reveal was a bit of a disappointment. Writers are so skilled at stoking our imaginations that having to choose one reality and bring it to the page means competing with what our imaginations have created, and that is a loser’s game.