Friday, May 30, 2014

Descent Into Darkness

A couple years back, I wrote about a novel called Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. The thoroughly enjoyable thriller was not the author's first effort, though, and I recently got around to reading one of her prior books, Dark Places.

Dark Places is the story of a woman who, as a young girl in the 1980s, survived a brutal massacre of her mother and sisters. Her older brother, supposedly spurred by an interest in Satanism, was convicted of the crimes, while she herself offered testimony that helped condemn him to life in prison. But now, all these years later, a group of true crime enthusiasts reaches out to her, convinced that police coerced her testimony as a young girl and that her brother is really innocent. She sets out on an investigation into what really happened that night, stirring up dark memories.

Between this book and Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has definitely carved out her voice as a writer. She's very good at writing about unsympathetic yet complex female characters. You don't really like the people Flynn's books are about, and yet that somehow doesn't stop you from rooting for these protagonists, or at least becoming engrossed in their lives. Flynn's simple-looking but carefully crafted phrases really put you in the head space of her characters.

The spine of both plots is a mystery. And while Dark Places' mystery is compelling and twisted, it unravels a bit in the final chapters. The need for a surprising twist seems to have won out here over a more sensible resolution. (It seems Flynn learned from this in writing the later Gone Girl, where she placed a big revelation halfway through the book and used it to springboard the story in an entirely new direction.) Still, the road is an entertaining one up until that last, questionable turn.

Flynn also uses alternating chapter structures in both of the books I've read. In Gone Girl, the technique was used to build a "he said, she said" narrative. Here, things switch between the present (and the protagonist's investigations) and the past (in the days leading up to that fateful night). Things also alternate between first person (as we follow the protagonist's journey) and third person narratives of multiple characters (leading up to the murders). Flynn is strong in both formats, and the march of both threads towards climax is part of what makes the book such a page turner.

Interestingly, both Gone Girl and Dark Places have been turned into movies, and both will be released later this year. Gone Girl is the bigger event, directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck. But Dark Places promises to be interesting too, with casting that is simultaneously promising and yet not at all who I pictured in reading the book -- Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, and Chloe Grace Moretz will take on the major roles.

Gillian Flynn has written one other novel so far, and my enjoyment of these two will definitely push me to give it a try. As for Dark Places, I give it a B+. If you like mysteries and a taut, punchy writing style, you should check it out for yourself.

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