Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s third novel, published in 2012, became a sensation, and will make its feature film debut in October, starring Ben Affleck and Rosemond Pike as the married couple in this addictive thriller. When I was thinking of some good reads to take on vacation a couple of months ago, I decided to check out her first two novels, because I was not on her bandwagon until her third novel—a bit behind legions of loyal fans. Now I can’t wait for her next effort.
The author has been quoted as describing her work in this way: “You might say I specialize in difficult characters. Damaged, disturbed, or downright nasty. Personally, I love each and every one of the misfits, losers, and outcasts in my three novels. My supporting characters are meth tweakers, truck-stop strippers, backwoods grifters …But it’s my narrators who are the real challenge.” Flynn is adept at spinning a thriller, but what sets her aside from others in her genre is her dedication to the examination of her characters. Yes, the reader still feels the chills and anticipation, but also benefits from the unexpected treat of seeing characters unravel or ravel, as the case may be. All of Flynn’s novels are set in Missouri, and Flynn seems to be on a mission to let the public know that freak-show stories don’t just happen in big cities—small towns in the Midwest house haunting secrets too.
In her debut novel, Sharp Objects, Flynn examines a dysfunctional family. Camille Preaker, the heroine (though that term doesn’t really fit Flynn’s female characters), once institutionalized for youthful self-mutilation, works for a third-rate Chicago newspaper when the novel begins. When a young girl is murdered and mutilated after another had disappeared months prior in Camille’s hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, her editor, a father-figure to her, but still eager for a scoop, sends her there in pursuit of a human-interest story. Camille wants to please him, but going back to her hometown is an emotional trigger that sets things rolling for Camille. Her family is among the town’s wealthy residents, but they couldn’t be less genteel under the surface. Camille is physically beautiful, but has numerous scars, inside and out.
Though the police, including a profiler from Kansas City, say they suspect a transient, Camille thinks the killer is local. Interviewing townsfolk, she relives her disturbing childhood under the watchful eye of her crazy mother, gradually uncovering family secrets as horrific as the scars beneath her clothing, which all have a message and can’t be removed (but I won’t spoil that twist). Flynn misdirects the reader (though some may figure it out) until the shocking ending.
Dark Places tells the story of a young women who is grappling with the murky memory of an event that took place when she was seven years old. When Libby Day’s mother and two older sisters were slaughtered in the family’s farmhouse, it was Libby’s testimony that sent her 15-year-old brother, Ben, to prison for life. 24 years later, she is desperate for cash, as the money collected for her by sympathetic citizens has been spent and she has never been quite motivated to get a job or an education because the murders stunted her emotional growth (and gave her some physical issues too, as she lost part of her hand due to frostbite when she escaped the crime scene).
Libby reluctantly agrees to meet members of the Kill Club, true-crime enthusiasts who obsess and argue over famous cases, because she senses that they will pay her for her celebrity and mementos. She’s surprised to learn most of them believe Ben is innocent, because his guilt has always been an absolute to her, and that they believe the real killer is still on the loose. Though initially interested only in making a quick buck hocking family memorabilia, Libby is soon drawn into the club’s investigation, and begins to question what exactly she saw—or didn’t see—the night of the tragedy. Flynn deftly moves between the present day and the hours leading up to the murders, seen through the eyes of her family members. Libby visits her brother in prison and they start some sort of relationship. Will she believe him? When the truth emerges, it’s an unexpected twist that leaves the reader wishing the novel wasn’t over. Libby is complicated, but she’s missed at novel’s end.
All three novels allow readers to follow desperate and complicated characters through unusual circumstances and delve deep into their psyche. For those who haven’t read Gone Girl, read that too, of course. But her first two are just as good, if not better. Three great summer reads—check.