Gillian Flynn,
Dark Places
(Crown, 2009)

With Dark Places, Gillian Flynn barges into the very front ranks of American crime-fiction writers. And note I didn't say female crime-fiction writers. I'm talking across the board. Some will say the ending is a bit too twisty. I say it is earned.

About the "dark" factor. Child murder is involved here. This book is probably not for most fans of Janet Evanovich and Carl Hiasson (actually I am a fan of Carl, but Janet's not my cup of tea) if they like cuteness with their crime.

Flynn's prose style deserves special attention as being marvelously effective. She is a master at showing the detail that brings the whole scene into focus. I found myself lingering on incredibly evocative sentences. I did not find a single cliche in this book. I cannot recall an American crime-fiction writer this dexterous with words and images. I can only compare her with Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, who's a Brit.

When I said above that the ending is earned, I mean that Flynn shows the mean, really mean, poverty that afflicted Kansas farmers in the 1980s. A desperate farm mother reduced to feeding her four kids soup and mustard sandwiches. Plus, her kids are semi-brats. Plus her ex-husband is a good-for-nothing redneck alcoholic (the depiction of Runner Day is really disturbing). It's one thing being somewhat poor. Quite another facing the abyss of total destitution if you are the mother of four. Your heart really goes out to Patty Day.

The central question is who committed the slaughter in the Day family farmhouse 24 years earlier, leaving only 7-year-old Libby Day, who fled the house into a subfreezing night, as a witness (maybe) to the deaths of her two sisters and mother. Her brother, who was 15 at the time, is serving a life sentence for the crime. A club of crime junkies pays Libby $500 just to show up at their meeting. Now broke, she discovers that she can collect hundreds of dollars from crime aficinados if she uncovers new aspects of the crime, especially since many think her brother is innocent. She sets out on that mission.

Libby is a difficult protagonist. Obviously traumatized at an early age, she is cranky, lazy, kleptomaniacal, cynical and rude. Until galvanized into action, she spends her days glaring at her unfriendly neighbors. She is a hard protagonist to get behind.

I read Flynn's debut novel Sharp Objects and was impressed. The protagonist Camille Preaker was as off-the-map strange but as compelling as Lisbeth Salander in the Millenium trilogy. I thought we might see the return of Camille, but apparently Flynn is not interested in an ongoing character. Dark Places is a significant step up from Sharp Objects. This is a writer to watch.

With Libby Day, the author creates someone who is as hard to cozy up to as Camile Preaker, but no less compelling. I cannot wait to see what Flynn comes up with next. She has talent to burn.

book review by
Dave Sturm

13 November 2010

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