Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

I just finished Gillian Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, last night. It was good, though not as good as Gone Girl. It was also just as rough and seedy as Gone Girl, and so I can’t give either book a general recommendation. If this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll definitely enjoy them, otherwise it would be prudent to steer clear. I don’t crave such settings, but they don’t bother me either and I can appreciate what they add to a well crafted tale. Still, a little goes a long way and I don’t know that I’ll read the remaining book anytime soon. I’m reminded of when Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films came out—they were good, but one a year was plenty, and after the third I was done with them and films like them for quite awhile.

I’m glad I read both books, though, and in reverse order, because it helped me notice something I think is important. What I enjoyed most about Gone Girl, aside from the very well crafted plot, was the use of unreliable narrators. My first encounter with this technique, as far as I remember, was in college when I read Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. I didn’t enjoy the book, found the first-person story it told harrowing—still do, what little I remember of it—but I also recall the shock of realizing: this guy is lying to me!  Before then it never occurred to me that a narrator could do that. And since then I’ve usually enjoyed books that used the technique, probably because it’s weird and difficult and tends to be the domain of better writers.

What I noticed when comparing Flynn’s second book with her third was that Gone Girl actually uses a second, related technique, namely characters lying to one another. I noticed because in Dark Places the narrators are reliable, at least as far as the story is concerned, but lie to each other about the details of the central event, a family being murdered, which took place 25 years earlier. These interactions are interweaved with first-person flashbacks from different people recounting the events leading up to the murders. The flashbacks are accurate for the person recounting them, but since each person has limited information they contain misunderstandings (not lies). And there is no omniscient narrator to sort out the details in order to say What Actually Happened—that is left for the reader to piece together. And Flynn does a mostly masterful job of revealing just the right details at just the right time, giving the reader the excitement of piecing them together. (I say “mostly” because a few times the critical details are presented in a more flatfooted way, out of a need to move the story along—not that I could have done it any better!)

Gone Girl is the more perfect realization of this approach, completely masterful. And it adds the additional twist of two narrators who lie not only to other characters but to the reader, making it more difficult to peer through the fog of deceptions—and way more exciting when you manage to do it. It’s a vicarious accomplishment, of course. Flynn has structured the telling very carefully so that you will discover just what you need to unravel the tangle without feeling as you’ve been manipulated, or even guided. It was pretty exciting when I read it.

Why go on at length about two books I can’t recommend? Because I think the techniques are independent of the content. There’s no reason someone couldn’t write a very different sort of book, even a wholesome one, that used exactly this approach to unfolding a tale. Perhaps mentioning it will increase the odds that someone somewhere will give it a try. If you do, let me know because I’d like to read more books like this.

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