I wasn't expecting to like Dark Places. I'm not a huge fan of the crime genre. However Gillian Flynn’s 2009 novel surprised me.
Dark Places follows the story of Libby Day, survivor of a 1985 massacre in Kinnakee which claimed the lives of her sisters and mother - and it’s her brother, Ben, who’s in prison for the murders. In fact Libby’s testimony helped put him there. Libby’s grown into a fairly unpleasant and selfish adult, wasting the past 24 years hiding away in a house in suburbia and living off monetary gifts from beneficiaries. That is until the money runs out. Unwilling to go out and work, Libby agrees to appear as “special guest” at The Kill Club for payment (it's a kind of ghoulish group into discussing, role-playing and attempting to solve famous murders).
Of course fundamentally Dark Places is a mystery story; we know that Libby’s family is murdered, we just don’t know exactly how. As soon as Libby joins in with The Kill Club she learns that most of them think Ben is innocent. Flynn’s structure works well here as we alternate between Libby’s first person sections ‘today’ and the actual day of the massacre. These latter sections are all in third person and follow different characters’ impressions of the day, from mother Patty to Ben himself. We get a real sense of dread as the 1985 sections move through that fateful day and events spiral out of control.
I was very much reminded of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Based on the real-life murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, when we start reading Capote’s novel we already know the bloody end result. We just don’t know the precise sequence of events that night. The novel’s first section The Last to See Them Alive alternates between parts charting the Clutter family’s last day (all the while we’re looking for clues) and those showing Dick and Perry’s journey across the states to the isolated farm where they’ll ‘blast hair’ all over the walls. But who actually killed the family? Perry? Dick? Both of them? It’s not until the end that we finally get Perry’s confession, and even then I guess we’ll never know if it’s the truth.
Flynn plays around with these questions about truth and ambiguity throughout Dark Places. Due to alternating viewpoints we often get different takes on the same event. Patty believes her son enjoys the blokey repartee with his father, but we later learn he feels bullied and emasculated by it. One of Flynn’s real strengths is characterisation, and Ben is a wholly believable portrait of an awkward teenager in the mid-eighties. For example Flynn notes how his jeans are just slightly too short in the leg, which his “friend” Trey teases him for. Ben’s obsessed with death and thrash metal: the perfect scapegoat for a series of gruesome, apparently satanic murders? However we also discover some dodgy things about Ben; Flynn isn't going to make it easy for us, and she keeps us guessing right up to the end.
Some of the details near the end perhaps test the limits of credibility just that bit too much. But Dark Places is still an engrossing read, especially in its depiction of rural poverty in eighties America. In fact the sections I found the most appealing were those set in the past, on the day of the murder. Flynn’s novel is fast paced, evocative and moreish: definitely worth a read.