DARK PLACES (2009)
Broadway Books, 349 pages, 978-0307341570
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Before there was Gone Girl, there was Dark Places, which for my money is a superior effort by Gillian Flynn. Dark Places will appear as a movie latter this year and it might be a good idea to read the novel first as liberties are being taken with the original. Moreover, as many readers know, Ms. Flynn’s Gone Girl was a terrific novel, but Hollywood’s treatment of it was merely so-so.
Gone Girl was about bourgeois society, but Dark Places is, well, darker, with a take on rural farm country poverty that’s Carolyn Chute-like on the bleakness scale. The action shuttles between the indeterminate present and 1985, the year that five-year-old Libby Day was the only survivor of a brutal massacre in which her mother and two sisters were butchered inside their Kansas farmhouse. Her older brother, Ben, has been in prison ever since for what the courts determined—partly on Libby’s testimony—was a drug-addled satanic ritual slaying. And not even Libby avoided harm, as her flight into the winter woods led to several amputated frostbitten toes and fingers.
As we move to the present, Libby has a more pressing problem. When news of her misfortune hit the media in 1985, donors and well-wishers set up a trust fund for young Libby, but twenty plus years later the money’s nearly gone, the public is occupied by newer thrill parades, and Libby is living in hand-to-mouth squalor in a down market trailer park. Out of the blue, a man named Lyle contacts Libby and offers to pay her for a personal appearance before the Kill Club, a consortium of do-gooders, get-a-lifers, and creeps dedicated to getting at the “truth” of various sensational murders across America, including the 1985 slaying of Libby’s family. It seems that numerous Kill Club members have been in contact with Ben and are convinced that he’s innocent, that Libby’s “false” memory was planted by child psychologists, and that she needs to help them expose the “real” killer.
Libby is certain that Lyle and his cohorts are ghoulish conspiracy theory crackpots, and prison meetings with Ben do nothing to convince her otherwise. Still, she needs money and the Kill Club is willing to pay her to track down suspects on their list: Libby’s tramp father Runner, who abandoned his family years earlier, but showed up whenever he needed booze or drug money; Trey Teepano, an older boy with whom Ben hung out and who was a known Satanist; and Diondra, rumored to have been Ben’s girlfriend. They also want to hear from Krissi Cates, a stripper who was then an eight-year-old who accused Ben of molesting her. Senseless murder… Satan… copious amounts of blood…. cokeheads… alcoholism… crippling poverty… hobo camps… strip clubs… pedophilia…. Talk about your stroll down Low-Life Lane! I doubt anyone has ever accused Ms. Flynn of being the Queen of Sunshine.
Okay, so this is not an uplifting novel. It is, however, a very taut murder mystery and, if you know anything of Flynn’s work, you know that even revelations come drenched in moral ambiguity. It’s a whale of a story and its look at social class is sharper than in Gone Girl. Another reason to read the book and not wait for the film: Rumor has it that parallels to the Manson cult murders are grafted into the narrative. Why? If you’ll pardon the expression, that seems like overkill. –Rob Weir