I have a meanness in me, real as an organ
Gillian Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, takes the promise of her debut, Sharp Objects, and doses it with higher stakes and a deeper empathic perception that wholly inoculates it from the sophomore jinx.
Told in alternating chapters between the Now of Libby Day in first-person, and the 1985 of either Patty Day (Libby’s mother) or Ben Day (her older brother) in third-person, Dark Places hooks in immediately with its opening lines, and never looks back. We’re introduced to Libby Day, 31, one of two survivors of a ritual family murder in Kansas when she was seven known as, depending on who’s obsessing over it, The Prairie Massacre, The Kansas-Craze Killings, or The Farmhouse Satanic Sacrifice. Libby is a depressive who lives with a cat near a stockyard outside of Kansas City in a dump of an apartment. She exists on the dole, squeezing whatever supplemental income she can from the accrued notoriety of her past—a yoke she often uses to excuse her current predicament.
I was not a loveable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult.
With less than a $1,000 left in the bank, Libby reluctantly takes a $500 offer from a Kill Club—a fan club dedicated to famous murders and all related ephemera—to do a Q&A appearance, as well as sell any memorabilia she has directly related to the crime. Libby’s plan is to milk them for all she can get, but is soon drawn into the informal investigation run by one of the club’s leaders, a nervous, gangly crime-wonk named Lyle Wirth.
Like many in the Day-killing circle, Lyle believes that her brother, Ben, is innocent of the murders. Doubting their arguments at first, Libby nevertheless embarks on a series of road trips to seek out and interview those connected to the murders, including several other suspects, not the least being her father, Runner.
My dad, Runner Day, was crazy, drunk, and violent in an unimpressive way—a small man with sneaky fists, she says of him, the Kill Club’s chief suspect.
In between repeated visits of Ben in jail and meetings at the Kill Club for comparing notes, we learn her mother’s (Patty) and Ben’s sides of the events as they occurred in the days leading up to the killings in 1985. Flynn’s attention to detail, specifically regarding family dynamics, is even more acute than in Sharp Objects—itself a solid study in familial goings-on, notably between women. We see the cramped, struggling everyday of the Days, which also include older sisters Debby and Michelle, both to fall victim on that fateful, looming night. Their infighting and dominance-play is best summed up by Libby: If you don’t have money, gossip isn’t bad leverage. Even inside one’s own family.
Not having enough on her plate with three head-butting daughters, Patty’s heaviest concern revolves around Ben’s recent withdrawal and decent into darkness both in mood and crowd of friends, most notably after Ben decides to dye his signature fiery-red Day hair a jet-black, and rumors start to abound of his possible abuse of young girls at his school.
Ben has become involved with Diondra, a girl one year ahead of him, and with a dark, impulsive streak of her own. She introduces him to Trey, a local small-time bookie and Satanist, and another suspected by the Kill Club as a possible suspect. Runner owed him money, and Trey may have killed Runner’s family to scare him into paying.
Flynn deftly weaves and ties back together past and future relationships with a clear confidence, turning the already impressive Sharp Objects into a mere dress rehearsal for Dark Places. Moments and items are planted early on, only to make their appearance later in unexpected, surprising ways, from a missing diary to a casual mention early on at the Kill Club which has major ramifications in terms of solving the murders. She even injects humor in a chapter where Magda, the leader of the Free-Day Society, runs a memorabilia sale and holds court, breaking down and explaining her version of the Day murders with all the cringe-inducing bathos of a bad Oprah show.
In the end, this is Libby’s story through and through, and whether or not she can reconcile the truth of the murders and enjoy a semblance of a normal life. When that truth is eventually revealed, Flynn treats it with the afterthought it deserves, though it’s just as easy to see how some may be put off by what could be interpreted as something of a sell-out, though that would be missing the point. As with any thriller worth its salt, the whodunit defers to the why, and that why is at once sad and poignant.
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