Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.
The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club… and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.
What is it with Gillian Flynn writing books I love about people I hate?! When I read Gone Girl earlier in the year (review here), I was taken aback by how obsessed with a book I could be when it required me to spend time amongst characters that I would want nowhere near me in real life. Dark Places gave me exactly the same feeling; a feeling in my gut that everything was wrong but that putting the book down would be even worse. Libby Day is the survivor of an attack that saw her mother and two sisters murdered, apparently by her brother Ben. Rightly so, probably, Libby isn't exactly a well-rounded and balanced lady. Living off the tail-end of donations made by the public in the wake of the family tragedy that have meant that she's never had to work a day in her life, Libby is self-centred, morbid, socially awkward and struggling with depression. Descriptions of characters don't get much more accurate than Libby's description of herself on the first page:
"I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders...I was not a lovable child and I'd grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul and it would be a scribble with fangs"
The strange thing is, though, even while I was repulsed by some of her actions and found her maddening at times, it seemed to fit. I would rather spend time with a character that really does feel like the product of her circumstances than someone who is pleasant and delicate in spite of having a quite obviously traumatic past. Libby does develop as a character but in a way that is so painfully realistic that I ached for her to find any kind of resolution. Because this book isn't only about who killed the Day family. It is about that but it's also about trauma, depression, guilt, trust and recovery. It's unbelievably compelling reading as a mystery but it's also utterly devastating as a story about a family's final few hours. Aside from Libby, I also really liked the portrayal of Ben. Believed by a group of crime groupies to be wrongly convicted, there's a whiff of martyr about Ben occasionally, which I would usually find a bit irritating. What's clever (and kept me guessing for most of the book) though is the marked difference between the incarcerated Ben of the present day and the unruly teen of twenty-five years earlier. I'd read all day about miscarriages of justice without batting an eye but what really kept me glued to this book was that I had no clue whether Ben was guilty or not. Dark Places shifts perspectives for each chapter, with the narrative alternating between Libby in the present day and various members of her family twenty-five years earlier. I'm not always sold on mixing up timelines and narrators but Flynn manages it perfectly. The narrative set in the past moves along at just the right rate to stop the slightly dawdling narrative in the present day from getting stale or from ploughing on through too many hints at the past without delivering the goods. Discovering the truth "as it happens" in the past also removes the need for any awkward turn around from Libby and her inclination towards repression and avoidance.
I read about two thirds of this while waiting for and travelling on various modes of transport on our way back to the UK from the US and the last third or so curled up on my sofa a little while after we'd got back. The revelations come at just the right pace and whenever I thought I had a handle on what was happening, I was shown just how wrong I was not long after. I don't know what it is but there's something about the way Flynn spins out a mystery that I just find incredibly difficult to disentangle myself from.
Overall: If you're one of those readers that might say anything of the "I didn't like x because I just hated the characters" ilk, this probably isn't a book for you - the people are vile. If you can get past that and you've either heard about Gone Girl and want to try something by Gillian Flynn that isn't labouring under months of hype or have read Gone Girl and are wondering if Flynn's other novels will compare, Dark Places is definitely, definitely worth a few hours of feverish page turning one gloomy evening.
Date finished: 11 October 2013
Genre: Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: by Phoenix in June 2010