RATING: 4 STARS
“The Days were a clan that mighta lived long
But Ben Day’s head got screwed on wrong
That boy craved dark Satan’s power
So he killed his family in one nasty hour
Little Michelle he strangled in the night
Then chopped up Debby: a bloody sight
Mother Patty he saved for last
Blew off her head with a shotgun blast
Baby Libby somehow survived
But to live through that ain’t much a life
—SCHOOLYARD RHYME, CIRCA 1985”
[THIS BOOK IN ONE SENTENCE: A woman whose family was murdered when she was 7 goes on a painful hunt for the truth with a lovable true crime investigator.]
The first thing I noticed about this book was that Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, wrote it. It seems like everyone was talking about Gone Girl last year except for me… because I still haven’t read it. I knew almost nothing about Gone Girl or Gillian Flynn before discovering this novel. I actually picked up Dark Places on the recommendation of a dear friend who swore up and down that it was impossible to stop reading! She was kind of right.
* * * Skip down to the MY THOUGHTS section for my opinion and review only; the MY SUMMARY section explores the book as an unspoiled synopsis.
Dark Places switches between past and present and has multiple point-of-view (POV) chapters. You read from the perspective of not only Libby, but also her mother, the convicted brother, and other characters. The past chapters are set on that fateful day leading up to the murder: January 2nd, 1985, when everything goes horribly wrong. The chapters set in the present focus on 2009-era Libby reopening the investigation into her family’s murder as she comes closer than she ever thought she would to discovering the truth.
Upon opening the book, it doesn’t take you very long to learn that something terrible fell upon Libby Day’s family when she was just 7 years old. Her mother (Patty) and two older sisters (Michelle, 11, & Debby, about 9) were killed in the most grotesque ways possible, and Libby was a witness to much of the gore. She aided the prosecution by working through what happened that night with the court therapist, ultimately pointing the finger at 15-year-old Ben. This sentenced him to life behind bars with no physical evidence; there was only conjecture and the word of a traumatized 7-year-old girl.
Then the novel fast-forwards to modern-day Libby. She’s 32, has changed her red hair (a trait she shared with Ben) to platinum blonde, and has spent her whole life accepting charity from strangers who feel sorry for her. All-in-all, Libby received more than $300,000 for the horrors she faced. This talented, world-hating lady even managed to stretch the donations out by writing a book at the age of 25. But the money’s running out. Her financial manager wastes no time in telling her that former would-be benefactors are looking to help more little girls. Shocker, the reality is that Libby’s just not a little girl anymore.
“I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.”
Libby’s not a likable character. She’s just not. But of course the woman’s messed up; she witnessed the murder of her family before she could even understand it. Libby hates humanity, steals from every house she goes to, and manipulates people as much as she can – especially if money is involved. When an organization called “The Kill Club” contacts her offering to pay premium for an appearance, she jumps on it. Libby’s got no money and no sympathizers left, so this is her last chance at making a living without having to work at an actual job. (She’s somehow managed to have never worked a day in her life.)
A young man named Lyle leads The Kill Club, but shockingly to Libby, he and the others believe that Ben is innocent. This disgusts and scares her so much that she almost doesn’t come back to accept more of their money. But she does. Lyle is a necessary second character as he’s actually kind-hearted, empathetic, and can see the holes that Libby blinds herself to. After exchanging substantial amounts of money, Lyle and Libby work together to find out exactly what happened on the night of the murder. It isn’t easy. They travel far and wide (from prisons and strip clubs to skid rows and tea-laden houses) as Lyle attempts to find the real killer & Libby attempts to pay her rent. But when she realizes that the true culprit is still out there, Libby’s formerly nonexistent heart seems to shatter into a million pieces.
Mystery’s not my cup of tea. Plus, I get so scared of stories like this that I’d rather hide under my bed than continue reading them! But Flynn’s writing made it impossible NOT to read more. Sure, I could only read it during the day and shivered whenever I opened the book at night, but that’s scary stories for you.
This novel combines a classic Whodunit plot with deep characterizations that portray the more shadowed aspects of humanity. Gillian Flynn has a real knack at this, and that literary skill is what separates Dark Places from the majority of mystery novels. You know the ones: fictional puzzles with basic characters, a crowbar in the hallway, and a shotgun in the kitchen. They tend to focus less on characters and more on advancing the plot. Cheap mysteries are fine for a one-minute thrill, but if you want to write an unforgettable tale of regret, panic & redemption, you have to dig deep into your characters’ psyches. Four stars to Gillian Flynn for accomplishing this task with gusto.
My review is partially relevant because the Dark Places movie comes out on August 7th, 2015. The film will feature Charlize Theron as Libby and my forever-favorite, Nicholas Hault (of Skins fame), as Lyle.
I’d recommend Dark Places to true crime enthusiasts (of course), readers of mystery fiction, and those who enjoy delving deep into an unsettling psyche. This novel is perfectly satisfying for casual readers as well. It’s thrilling, daring, and pleasurably frightening. Pick it up.
Dark Places was originally published on May 5th, 2009 by Shaye Areheart Books.