A brutal murder of a rural family results in the conviction of the son as a consequence of the testimony of the one surviving daughter, Libby. Years later, the now damaged and depressed adult Libby Day reflects upon the events of that tragic night at the behest of the ‘Kill Club’, a macabre group of true crime fanatics who believe the son, Ben, to be innocent. As Libby delves deeper into the events of the past she begins to unearth the truth of her family’s murders.
Dark Places is the second novel by Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects and the hugely successful Gone Girl. Flynn, who has knack for the dark and twisted , delves deep into morbid territories with the aptly titled Dark Places.
At it’s heart, Dark Places is a classic who-dunnit novel. A horrendous crime, red-herrings and a slew of suspicious characters keep you hooked and guessing throughout. In this respect the novel succeeds. Even to the point where the final pieces of the puzzle are being revealed reader-detectives will be scratching their heads trying to figure out who committed the crime and why?
The mystery unravels through two parallel narrative streams. One is the perspective of adult Libby Day, as she digs deeper into the past. The other is from the perspective of multiple characters on the day of the murders. As the past narrative widens, the present narrative simultaneously narrows, both rushing to an ultimate reveal and final confrontation. It is an exceptionally compelling narrative device.
While the central mystery and the manner in which it is told is compelling, I grew frustrated at the story’s continual interruptions by Libby Day’s internal monologue. Many scenes would involve a character finally disclosing crucial information, only for the flow of dialogue to be stalled by Libby’s thoughts on this, her impressions on that. It’s not as though these thoughts of our main character were useless – many being very insightful, but I wish Flynn exercised some more discretion, rather than making every scene with Libby feel like a diary entry.
However, without doubt the most common gripe with Dark Places is well… its darkness. Yes I know how petty that sounds given the title of the novel, but I think it’s quite valid. There is literally nothing good or hopeful for the reader to hold onto while working their way through this book – it is a novel filled entirely with despicable people committing despicable acts. Even the setting is grimy and morbid. The past narrative is set is rural Kansas, but there is no small town charm here. Instead, the town is worn down, impoverished, bored. The modern day setting is no better, as Libby moves from her trailer house to one seedy bar after another.
I personally am usually a huge fan of dark fiction, but reading Dark Places I often had to take a physical break from the novel. The ceaseless uneasiness began to weigh heavily on me after not too long.
As for the characters, they range from unlikable to utterly despicable. Our main character Libby is mentally damaged after the events of her youth, cynical, prickly and self loathing… it’s hard to feel any different about her as she exploits her family tragedy for pecuniary gain. Only once she begins to realise her testimony may have been wrong is she motivated by something other than money and her character feels only slightly redeemable by the end of the novel. Ben is a selfish moody teenager, surrounded by seedy and hateful companions. As an adult who has spent the majority of his life in prison, he is frustratingly unmotivated offer assistance to prove his innocence and is otherwise quite bland. Runner, the on-again, off-again father of the Day family is a deadbeat, drug-dealing hobo. Libby’s sisters could be described kindly as brats or not so kindly as little shits. Lyle, Libby’s ‘Kill Club’ companion is weird, rude and socially inept – but not in an endearing way. In short, there is simply no one to like in Dark Places.
However for me the biggest issue with Dark Places is the ending – I hated it. Accordingly, minor spoilers ahead.
I won’t talk about who committed the murders or why they happened, I will just say that the ultimate reveal was extremely disappointing. It felt as though Flynn wrote the novel hoping she would figure out the ending along the way, only to reach the conclusion and realise shit…I don’t know how to end this; and so she came up with a convenient and ridiculous solution. The explanation for the murders involves some extraordinarily stupid or unlikely decision making by no less than several characters, and it cheapened the whole journey of unraveling the mystery. It’s because of this absurd and all too neatly wrapped ending that I unfortunately cannot recommend Dark Places.
You can purchase Dark Places here.