Novel Review: “Dark Places”

I have a meanness in 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.

Gillian Flynn’s 2009 bestseller takes its readers on a dark thrill ride as Libby Day, childhood survivor of a massacre blamed on Satanists, questions the events of the night and her own memories and testimony.

The film, starring Charlize Theron, Chloë Moretz, and Christina Hendricks (of Mad Men and Firefly fame), will be in theaters come September. Fans of suspenseful, dark mysteries will want to read the book first.

Title: Dark Places

Author: Gillian Flynn

First published in 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0307341570

Available from,,, and as a kindle.


Young Libby Day survived the childhood massacre of her family, blamed on her (supposedly) Satan-worshiping older brother. A wasted and dark couple of decades later, she connects with the Kill Club—- people obsessed with grisly and notorious murders—- and begins to wonder if her childhood testimony helped put the wrong person– and the only other survivor– behind bars.

The path she sets upon proves less than safe.

High Point:

The book makes for compelling reading, as we follow the grim comedy of errors that lead characters to grisly ends.

But Flynn has crafted something more than a disturbing mystery. Her story addresses a number of larger issues: moral panic, witness reliability, and class concerns. Dark Places examines the means by which stories and suspicions spread, and how cultural leanings can complicate and compromise justice.

Low Point:

So about the ending.

The solution to a bizarre mystery will be, necessarily, bizarre, and unlikely twists have become a part of the mystery genre. I’ll accept the confluence of incongruous events that lead to the killing (If they ever solve the real-life Keddie Murders, I expect they’ll uncover something equally unlikely). Some readers will be less forgiving, and I admit to rolling my eyes when I realized where this was going.

Given the nature of the solution, Flynn should have pulled back in some other coincidences. The cattle mutilations, in particular: why do they occur on the same night as the killings? Everything they represent and foreshadow would work easily well at some earlier time. This remains true even if we want to wonder, as one character does, if those responsible really did summon something supernatural.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Other writers have tackled similar subject matter, of course. I was fascinated to recognize (and have written about) so many of her sources for this story, including the Clutter Murders, the West Memphis Three, the Keddie Killings, the Murders at Payne Hollow Lane, the McMartin Scandal, and the 1980s Satanic Panic. At the same time, this book has its own take on its fictional events, and I’m always gratified to see someone else recalls the widespread abuses of justice that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s, over which our society has developed a collective amnesia.

Imagery: 6/6 You won’t always like her imagery any more than you like her characters. Flynn writes about unpleasant people in nasty circumstances. However, she does not forget her characters’ humanity, and she knows how their circumstances look and sound and smell.

Story: 5/6 Flynn has penned a gripping page-turner, and she moves deftly between three narratives. The ending mars her story somewhat.

Characterization: 6/6 Flynn does an excellent job, especially with the main character, who acknowledges she was “not a lovable child” who grew “into a deeply unlovable adult.” She leeches off her family’s infamy, steals compulsively from acquaintances, and becomes jealous of the missing and murdered girls who replace her in the popular press and public imagination. I nevertheless grew to like her, just a little, by the conclusion.

The novel also depicts series of characters at various degrees of disturbed, downtrodden, and socially awkward, from the nerdy Kill Club members to the convicted brother; even his friend are always “looking for something to make fun of” when they see him.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Editing: 5/6 Flynn takes us into this world, Libby looking back on photos of herself “in scruffy pigtails on the possum-pissed lawn outside” her “Aunt Dianne’s trailer.” She describes barflies who look alike, as though “living was so hard it just erased your features.” At the same time, she can also fall into shopworn but serviceable cliché, noting, for example, that victims were hunted down “like rabid dogs.”

Overall score: 5/6 This is no Agatha Christie cozy, and more sensitive readers will want to tread with care.

In total, Dark Places receives 35/42