Last year, Gillian Flynn's mystery, Gone Girl was a runaway bestseller. It was almost immediately released in a film adaptation that was equally well-received. I came to the novel well after all the hoopla was flying around the media world. I don't know how I'd managed not to have the novel's twists and turns ruined for me, but I was lucky. When I picked up the book, I was approaching it without any experience of Flynn's tight writing style or previous works. It was such a fine read! Intricate and finely calibrated to expose little clues and bits of each character's personality at a time, it made me read carefully and wonder about the slightest little action or bit of dialogue. To say that the twists and turns of the story surprised me would be an understatement. I was flabberghasted by the ending and thought about the book for days after finishing it. And then, I began to wonder just how the movie version could ever come close to the level of workmanship that was put into the expository nature that Flynn used to tell her story. For that reason, I still have not seen the movie. I just don't want the story to be ruined for me.
Instead, I have picked up Ms. Flynn's previous novel called Dark Places. Once again, I have been drawn into a mystery that has me guessing. This time, the story revolves around a horrid murder spree that occurs in a small farming community in Kansas during the 1980's.
The Day family is a farming family that is in crisis. Patty Day and her children are trying desperately to keep the family farm from foreclosure. Patty's divorced husband has ruined the farm through overspending on machinery, bad management decisions, and drinking. He's split when the going got rough and saddled Patty with four kids, debt, and overwork. It's all Patty can do to keep the chores done, straggle along making late payments on debts by 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', and keep her children fed, clothed, and on time for school Times are rough. To boot, her eldest child, fifteen year old, Ben, is struggling to come into his own as a teenager and as the lone male left in the family. Living with a house full of women is tough and Ben is feeling rebellious and increasingly bitter about the level of poverty that the family is experiencing. to say that his relationship with his mother is strained is an understatement.
On a cold night in January, Patty and her daughters, Debby and Michelle are brutally murdered. The weapons are an axe from the barn, a hunting knife, and the family's shotgun. The youngest daughter, Libby wakes to hear screaming and scuffling, the sounds of a struggle, thumping, shots, and shouting. She retreats to the bedroom window, falls out of it and scrabbles into the brush by one of the farm's streams. By morning, when all is silent, she makes her way back to the house to find a scene that will damage her forever. Ben has gone missing, but everyone else is horribly dead.
Jump to the present, Libby Day has grown up living on 'the kindness of strangers'. She's broke though. The funds that were donated at the time of the notorious investigation and trial that buzzed around her brother Ben have been depleted. Libby, a hardened and severely damaged young woman, has to figure a way to survive. So ... she returns to that horrible experience to milk it one more time. In doing so, she must confront the investigation, the trial and her part in convicting her brother to life without parole. Did she really understand what was happening on that January night or was she coerced to testimony by the prosecution and the social services workers who counselled ?
This is a tight story that flits back and forth between the hours leading up to the murder as experienced by Ben and Patty and the present day experiences of Libby as she forces herself to return to that day and evening of the murders. It's another page-turner, deep with great character development and intricate plot twists. Played out against the farming crisis of the 80's, society's fear of teenage rebelliousness and the heavy metal rock influences that spawned the fear of Satanic cult activity, the prejudices of farmers against their peers who were struggling to survive financially, and 80's child abuse scares that were prevalent in media, this is a novel that exposes those dark places.
No spoilers here ... but if you can stand the darkness of the tale, this is one good mystery !