I gulped this book down in about two days, completely unprepared for it. I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, such a nasty treat, and meant to read her other novels, but the wait list is long at the Brooklyn Public Library. I didn’t even know what Dark Places was about, but when I started flipping through the opening pages listing the reviews that compared it to In Cold Blood, I knew the novel had to go to the top of my book pile. In Cold Blood has to be one of the most reread novels in my house. I had to retire a copy because the cover came off and it started flaking off pages one by one.
While I don’t know much about Kansas and the area where the Clutters were killed (the murder that’s the focus of In Cold Blood), I do know Kansas City, Missouri, and the low-rent satellite communities that surround it. I did a year of high school in Grandview, Missouri, and it was terrifying. I can remember the mean poverty surrounding me in a land of plenty, and it was a marked contrast after coming back from Germany, where my father had been stationed. Flynn recreates this setting in the most creepy and delicious of ways, and I think she gets it right: “He led me around the corner and down a hallway of former offices. I crunched broken glass, peering into each room as we passed: empty, empty, a shopping cart, a careful pile of feces, the remains of an old bonfire, and then a homeless man who said Hiya! cheerfully over a forty-ounce.”
The characters populating the story are as much of a knockout as how Flynn captures the Missouri setting. Unlikely protagonist Libby Day is in a precarious position. She’s now in her early thirties, the only other survivor besides her brother of her family’s brutal murder that happened one night in January 1985. Libby’s brother was accused of murdering her two sisters and mother; only Libby survived, after running away, though she sacrificed some toes and half a finger to frostbite.
With Libby’s testimony, her brother is now serving a life sentence in prison and she has been living on money put up by strangers long ago in a fund in her name. Not having a job for most of her life, she’s burned through almost all of it, even when supplemented by a ghostwritten self-help book capitalizing on her story.
Libby has incomplete memories of the time the murders happened, but she starts thinking back on those events after a strange man approaches her, offering money for any mementos or recollections. She’s made her apartment and bed a cocoon from the rest of the world and would rather go back to that defining moment of her life and make money from it than to acquire new skills and go out into the world. Libby is still a brat as an adult, seemingly stuck at the age when tragedy struck, but she has her sweet moments, too.
Flynn is a master of suspense and skillful at balancing the two story lines of Dark Places. She alternates going between the events that built up to the multiple murder in 1985 and what is happening to the adult Libby as she starts recovering her memories of that time while going outside of her comfort zone and meeting new people. Flynn’s able to keep the tension mounting in both story lines until they meet and the mystery is revealed. The smallest details contribute to the major revelation at the end, but they’re not clumsy and never give the story away. I never saw the real story behind the multiple murder coming, yet it didn’t come off as implausible.
Flynn is one of the authors that I try and press friends to read, and when my sister was looking for a good book, I insisted she read Dark Places. She couldn’t guess the ending either, and she’s usually really good at it. We have a game we play when watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU where she has to guess the perpetrator in the first five minutes, and she almost always pegs it right. Not this time.
I really think 2014 is going to be Flynn’s year. Both Gone Girl and Dark Places will appear as movies (according to IMDb), with excellent casts attached, exposing more people to her work. Now, if only I had another Flynn novel to look forward to because I’m down to the last one.