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by Gillian Flynn
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, May 2009
368 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0297851578

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Former Entertainment Weekly film and TV critic Gillian Flynn stamped a quick impression on the crime and thriller writing world with her 2007 debut SHARP OBJECTS. The bleak, creepy tale of dysfunctional reporter Camille Preaker, who has to confront her own troubled past when she's sent to her hometown (an urban backwater) to dig a human interest story from the mutilation death of a young girl, showed Flynn had much to offer on the other side of the creator/critic divide. It won both the CWA John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger for best debut, and the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for best thriller (the first book to ever win two Daggers), and was also shortlisted for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

DARK PLACES is Flynn's horribly fascinating follow-up and although they say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you certainly can judge this one by its title. Set once more amongst the seamy cities, foreclosed farms, and hooker-filled truckstops of America's bleak Midwest, this novel takes you to some very, very dark places.

Once again the heroine is a dysfunctional young woman who has survived a troubled childhood. Libby Day barely survived the 'Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas' as a seven-year old, when her mother and two sisters were brutally killed, and a quarter-century on Libby remains less than whole, physically and emotionally. Having drifted for two decades, adding to her scars inside and out, she has successfully squandered the last dregs of the 'Libby Day Fund', while her older brother Ben, whom she fingered for the massacre, has rotted in prison. In financial desperation, she accepts an offer to appear before a macabre group of true crime enthusiasts, fans who've obsessed over the historic bloodbath and their belief that Libby's childhood evidence jailed an innocent man (an even greater tragedy in some of their eyes). Driven by the opportunity to make money, Libby agrees to reconnect with some of the surviving figures from her past thinking she'll fleece the creepy crime fans for mementos and knick-knacks. But as she investigates, she begins to wonder whether they are right, and she might have got it wrong all those years ago.

Flynn masterfully intercuts Libby's present-day narration with that of several key people, including Libby's slaughtered family members, during the events leading up to the murderous night, building tension and a sense of dread. It's a narrative device that could have fallen flat, but in Flynn's capable hands, it works - Libby and the reader together stumble along a twisting minefield of dead-ends and discoveries, piecing together 'the truth' of what really happened all those years ago.

It takes real skill to have the reader following along, completely engrossed by a cast of universally dysfunctional and dislikeable characters, but Flynn manages it well. Libby is incredibly flawed, even cruel "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ," she admits early on but fascinating nonetheless. There are no real heroes in DARK PLACES, just broken people stumbling through life as best they can, often failing, often hurting themselves and others, and often not caring. But Flynn makes the reader care; the sign of a very good writer.

Set amongst the dodgy psychology-fuelled hysteria of small-town Satanism panic, the book has unsettling echoes of some real-life 'satanic' killings, such as the infamous West Memphis Three case.

Similarly to its predecessor, DARK PLACES was deservedly shortlisted for the recently-announced Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, although this time Flynn missed out on the award (which went to John Hart's stellar THE LAST CHILD). Nevertheless it is a masterful novel, gripping and memorable. It will stay with you long after the action-packed, and surprising, conclusion, but it is not for the fainthearted.

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson, October 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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