Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places Embraces Uncertainty

Hello, everyone! Another day, another book review, another book about people whose last name is Day. That book is Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s second novel between Sharp Places and Gone Girl. I’m a big of fan of Flynn’s other two novels, but while Dark Places kept me entertained and contains some fantastic, insightful writing, it wasn’t as successful an effort as Flynn’s other works. So, what are the best parts of Dark Places and what are the worst?

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Synopsis: On a freezing winter night in 1985, seven-year-old Libby Day witnessed the murder of her mother and two sisters. Convinced that her fifteen-year-old brother Ben is the perpetrator, Libby testifies against him, sealing his fate and sending him to prison. More than twenty years later, Libby is struggling to support herself and falls in with the Kill Club, an investigative group that believes her brother is innocent and will pay her to help them find the true murderer. Although she is at first reluctant and cynical, Libby soon realizes that the events of her family’s murder are not as clear-cut as she once thought, and that in order to find the truth, she’ll have to revisit the dark places to which she swore never to return.

The Good Parts: Gillian Flynn has a trademark writing style. Every word drips with cynicism and her imagery is often inventively grotesque. But that doesn’t mean her story suffers from a lack of complexity. At its heart, Dark Places is about the nuances of human nature, and the cruel consequences that often stem from society’s inability to understand those nuances. The story is told from three perspectives: Ben’s, Patty’s (the mother), and Libby’s. Ben’s and Patty’s story spans only one day, the day of the murders, while Libby’s takes place in the present and spans about a week or two. The frequent jumping between perspective and time period helps add a suspenseful rhythm to the book. Every time the reader thinks they’re about to stumble on a clue, Flynn flips to a different perspective, which frustrates the reader but also gives them more insight into the situation.

Each perspective functions like a puzzle piece because no one, not even Ben, knows the full story on what happened on the night of the murders. It’s the reader’s job to fit the puzzle pieces together and pick up on the subtle (or not so subtle) details that Flynn scatters throughout the book. With its suspenseful pace and puzzle-like form, Dark Places is an entertaining and fun book to read. Yes, I just called a book about horrific murders “fun.” But if you’re reading any of Flynn’s work, then you probably agree.

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I apologize for the suffering I have caused with this gif

What I enjoyed most about Dark Places is the characterization. Now I love character-driven books and I love plot-driven books and I double-love books that are equally driven by both.  None of the characters in Dark Places are what we might call “good” people. Libby is a kleptomaniac and a liar, she’s unambitious, angry, violent, and at times manipulative. But she’s also intelligent, insightful, and desperate to understand the truth about the night that destroyed her life. A lot of people have praised Flynn for writing female characters that aren’t pure good or pure evil. Libby is a prime example of that. As a protagonist she’s not lily white, but she’s not a villain either, which gives the reader just enough room to root for her without feeling like she’s suffocatingly perfect.

While Flynn is adept at writing realistic female characters, her strength is in writing male characters. Ben Day’s thoughts and emotions leap off the page. Like Libby, he’s not a “good” person. He’s weak, cowardly, bull-headed, spiteful, somewhat violent, and he’s made some morally debatable choices. Even with all of those characteristics, Flynn still encourages the reader to empathize with Ben. She wants us to see him as that quiet, loner in your class, or the boy-next-door who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. The surrounding characters in Dark Places all want to label Ben as one thing: a murderer, a Satanist, an innocent. But when she puts us in Ben’s head, letting us be privy to his best thoughts and his worst ones, she prods us to think deeper than those labels, to defy the idea that a person can be defined by only one characteristic.

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Ben in the movie adaptation of Dark Places

The Bad Parts: Flynn has crafted some amazing characters in the novel (Libby and Ben and Patty), but she falls short with others, namely Diondra and Krissy Cates. My quibbles with these characters are both technical and personal. On a technical level, I don’t find Diondra to be very realistic. For the majority of the book her eccentric nature is contained enough to have a semblance of realism, but once the climax begins, she becomes outlandish. She transforms from manipulative, selfish, and performative to violently crazy. Krissi Cates is largely the same. She’s originally characterized as attention seeking and naive, but then becomes an exaggerated liar and even a prostitute. On a technical level this is inconsistent characterization, but on a personal level it’s an example of Flynn falling into the trap of the hot crazy bitch.

It’s not enough that Diondra and Krissi are both beautiful and demanding, they are also insane and cruel and self-absorbed. Diondra and Krissi are both complicated characters, but they don’t have the same mix of good and bad that Flynn gives to her other main female characters. While Krissi has one sort of redeeming moment, she’s still mostly shown as a destructive liar. As for Diondra, she’s written in the worst way possible, literally the bitch from hell, and it’s impossible to understand why Ben, or anyone, would give her the time of day.

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The second fault of the book is the answer to the “whodunnit” mystery. The suspense and the tension leading up to the reveal is thrilling, and even the scene of the actual reveal is great to read, but the reveal of the “whodunnit,” to me at least, isn’t satisfying. It is too contrived and the motivation is lacking. And when you realize that Flynn gives away the ending very early on in the story, it becomes even sillier.

Final Consensus: If Dark Places was the type of the mystery where the “whodunnit” was the only thing that matters, then I probably would have written a much harsher review. But as it stands, Dark Places doesn’t need a satisfying answer to the mystery to still be an immensely enjoyable book. Its plot and strength of characterization as well as Flynn’s unique, incisive style makes Dark Places a fascinating, fulfilling read.

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She’s right.
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