The One Sentence Summary
: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime after doubts about her brother’s guilt begin to surface.The Meat and Potatoes
: When Libby Day was seven, her mother and two sisters were killed in their rural Kansas farmhouse, their blood used to paint satanic symbols on the walls. Ben Day, Libby’s moody fifteen-year-old brother, was convicted of the murders, largely on the basis of Libby’s testimony. Now thirty years later, the charity fund that she has been living off is nearly gone and Libby can’t bear the thought of getting a job. She’s contacted by Lyle Wirth, a young man who is president of the “Kill Club”—a group of true crime fanatics who are obsessed with finding the truth about the “Farmhouse Satan Sacrifices”—and he pays Libby to do some freelance investigating into the murders of her family. Though all her life she’s believed Ben was the culprit, Libby uncovers some inconsistencies that make her as hungry for the truth as the members of the strange club she’s become involved with.Dark Places
is written in the past tense, using first person point of view for the chapters narrated by Libby, and third person for those narrated by other characters. The story opens on Libby in the present day as she begins to investigate the murders of her family. Libby’s present day account alternates with chapters through the eyes of other characters, on the day of the murders. This combination of present and past gives us an overall picture of the crime, bit by bit. Evidence is referenced in the present chapters and then we are able to see exactly how the events unfolded, from the eyes of the characters. For example, we are told early on that both the axe and the shotgun used to murder Patty Day (Libby’s mother) and Debby Day (Libby’s sister) belonged to the Days themselves. As the past chapters progress, we see Patty load the shotgun and leave it in the front room after being threatened by Libby’s father, Runner, and that the axe is mistakenly left in the house after being used to chop wood for the fire. In alternating between the present and the past, Gillian Flynn allows us to follow the crime on multiple levels while we try to solve the mystery ourselves.
Flynn also does a great job of dropping the details subtly into the narrative. Early on in the story we’re given information on the injuries that Libby has sustained (references to her “mangled hand,” her “bad foot,” and her missing toes). We’re left wondering exactly how these injuries occurred, and it isn’t until later that it is revealed. The evidence is presented in a similar fashion. In the present day chapters we see the murders clinically, through case files, crime scene photos, and evidence that doesn’t fit with the theory of Ben as the sole perpetrator. In the present chapters we hear the evidence described, and in the past chapters we actually see the events that resulted in the evidence.
The characters Flynn has created in Dark Places
are three-dimensional and realistic. Libby is not the stereotypical heroine. She plays on people’s sympathies and cashes in on being the sole survivor of a tragedy. She is lazy, mean-spirited, quick-tempered, and self-indulgent. She is also very selfish, and in fact, she has no interest in the murders until she is offered money to investigate. Libby is actually a very unlikable character, but is a realistic portrayal of someone who had to go through something so traumatic early in life. The other characters are similarly complex. Ben Day is not what you expect of the (possibly) wrongly accused. He is deeply flawed as well, and both in Libby’s present day talks with him in prison and in the past chapters narrated from his viewpoint, we can see that although he’s a generally good (albeit moody) person, he also has a darkness inside him. Even though the evidence seems to be pointing away from him, the reader continues to wonder throughout the story whether he is the killer after all. Patty Day is one of the better characters in the novel, a hard-working single Mom struggling to raise her four children and keep her farm afloat. Though her intentions are good, even Patty admits she isn’t as responsible as she should be, commenting that she doesn’t have the energy to devote to her children. She’s even relieved that Ben spends so much time alone in his room, rather than being concerned by it, because that way she doesn’t have to deal with him. Although the characters Flynn creates are not “good,” she imbues each with enough humanity that we can sympathize with them and understand their actions, even if we don’t condone them.The Praiseworthy
: Dark Places
is a wonderful example of a well-crafted mystery; it gives us all the information we need to solve the crime, dropping it in subtly so that when the killer is revealed we see it, but didn’t see it coming. Flynn does this quite well; I found myself taking note of the relevant details, but was not able to put it all together until just a few pages before the climax. For example, (view spoiler)[the “Angel of Debt,” who was the murderer of Patty and Debby, is mentioned by the Kill Club in the first few chapters of the book, as a theoretical serial killer (unrelated to the murders of the Day family). (hide spoiler)]
The writing in Dark Places
is solid throughout, and there are many instances of great writing as well. The narration in Libby’s perspective often slips into a rambling stream-of-consciousness that is quite realistic:
But he wasn’t home when we went to bed, and when I woke up the light was on. I remember a flush of relief because Ben was home because his light was on and the fight was over between him and my mom at least for today because the light was on and he was talking behind the door, maybe on his new phone, or to himself, but the light was on.
Flynn’s writing also has a number of gems of language, constructions of words that are almost poetic in their meaning:
[Eight hundred dollars.] The figure actually made her laugh. Did the guy really think that was her pocket change? Could he not look around and see how poor they were, the kids in shirtsleeves in the middle of winter, the kitchen freezer stacked with cheap meat, each marked with a long-gone year? That’s what they were: a home past the expiration date. (emphasis added)Dark Places
also contains simple writing that strikes a chord with the reader on a deeper level; writing that one can identify with:
It was surprising that you could spend hours in the middle of the night pretending things were OK, and know in thirty seconds of daylight that that simply wasn’t so.The Shortcomings
: Because the chapters alternate between past and present, we’re often left on a cliffhanger, with issues unresolved between chapters. While many people love this style of writing, it is my personal preference to have things mostly settled chapter to chapter. However, this style bothers me most when the cliffhangers are very contrived. In Dark Places
, although I remained very curious about the events unfolding at the end of each chapter, I didn’t find the carried suspense too distracting.The Verdict
: I would recommend Dark Places
to readers who enjoy crime stories, and are seeking a mystery that allows them to follow the crime on a number of different levels.