You might have heard of a little novel called “Gone Girl” in the last couple of years. On the surface it’s a straight up mystery with a side of domestic drama, but the thing that got it so much attention was its pair of spectacularly unreliable narrators and its dark take of spousal relationships and domestic power exchange. It put author Gillian Flynn on the map, became a blockbuster starring Ben Affleck and was pretty much a big deal.
I’m not here to talk about Gone Girl. GOTCHA. Buahahahahahahahaaaaaa.
See, at the time that Gone Girl was just starting to generate buzz, I was broke and living at home sans library card and unable to afford hard cover books (technically I still can’t afford hard cover books, but that is neither here nor there). But I wanted to read something by this female mystery writer everyone was talking about because I love mysteries but I have a hard time finding one with protagonists who aren’t (male) hard-bitten ex-cops with a tragic past, or former military men with PTSD and social problems or *insert other heroic male anti-hero character type here*.
So when my Kobo bookstore had a sale on Gillian Flynn’s previous two works, I bought Dark Places because it sounded intriguing, had extraordinarily great reviews and was listed on several Top Mystery lists. And guys, I’m just gonna say this: Dark Places is better than Gone Girl. IT JUST IS. I mean, let’s allow for personal opinion here – many people might disagree with me – but I’m sticking to that statement.
Gillian Flynn’s “thing” if you will, is writing female central characters who are not spunky, plunky, rise-above-tragedy hero-types or wrong-side-of-the-tracks sad-girls with hearts of gold, or any of those female tropes that generally do really well in literature. Flynn’s ladies are dark and twisty and messed up. They drink too much, curse and sleep around, make very questionable life choices and generally act like assholes. They’re emotionally closed, seriously damaged, selfish, abrasive and just really, really hard to like. Basically they are what a zillion male characters are in a zillion different books/tv shows/ movies/ plays/ etc. (see Hugh Laurie in House, William H Macy in Shameless and so on). Flynn gets a lot of push back for this idea that women exist who aren’t nurturing maternal types or inherently good deep down, or even good people period. And that’s part of why her books have the popularity they do, and also part of a whoooole other conversation about female representation in media that I’m not going to go into right now, but that I invite you to contemplate.
The point is, the main character in Dark Places is a charming bundle of alcoholism, self-centered egoism, manipulative, PTSD poster-child named Libby Day and she’s a total shit head but I love her anyway and that freaks me out. So many unlikeable protagonists try so hard to be unlikeable that they wind up awful caricatures instead of real people and the end result is you don’t give a crap about what happens to them. Libby is awful, but she’s relatable and awful and you end up really liking her in spite of yourself. Maybe this is because she’s horrible for a reason – her family was massacred when she was a small child and little Libby was the sole survivor and witness who implicated her older brother for the crime. Raised in a media storm, bounced around from home to home, and possessing pretty much zero coping skills or social intelligence at all, Libby eventually agrees to go meet with her brother at the plea of some true-crime enthusiasts who insist that Ben, the brother, is innocent. She does this, literally, because they pay her to do so. But, as is the way of mystery novels, this decision opens up a whole big can o’ worms, and herein lies our story.
The story is told primarily by Libby in the present day, interspersed with flashbacks narrated by Libby’s mom, Patty, and angsty teenage Ben. The mystery is gripping and suspenseful, and the story deftly handles a number of issues from poverty, spousal abuse, to the Satanic cult hysteria of the eighties. But the best part is watching Libby, this absolute wreck of a human being navigate attempting to rejoin society and figure out what really happened to her family. It is her brokenness and unlikeability that has you rooting for her so hard. It might be a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I” but whatever it is, it freaking works.
Sometimes there’s nothing better than curling up with a really good spine-tingling mystery. And sometimes it’s nice to remember that not all heroines come in the form of plucky orphans, or fierce warrior princesses or whatever other stereotype you’ve read a million times. I mean, goodness knows I love those stereotypes when they’re done well, but I also kind of like the reminder that getting out of bed every morning can be an act of courage, and that making it through your own messed up, complicated life is as heroic as slaying dragons. We’re all sort of heroes. And that’s sort of cool.