On reading Gillian Flynn

Spoilers ahead.


The last time I picked up a murder mystery was in high school. I was hooked onto Perry Mason back then, and the legendary lawyer and his dashing friends were a staple of our weekly library rounds. Eventually those books gave way to Michael Crichton and Ken Follett and David Baldacci and then I moved onto Amitav Gosh and Terry Pratchett.

In short, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn was my first murder mystery in ages. I don’t pretend to be connoisseur of the genre, but I had enjoyed Gone Girl the movie and I was looking for a book that would keep me turning the pages. The book delivered what it promised—it had me hooked, it surprised me, it had that final ‘aha!’ ending. It was grippingly written and it had everything that should have made it a great thriller—from Satanism and drugs to teenage pregnancy and child abuse. And yet, there were some points in the narrative where I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes. It felt too in-your-face-obvious and trying-too-hard.

Why? Some of it was a problem of style. Dark Places was Flynn’s second book and I’m assuming her style will only grow smoother. Writing a good mystery is like pulling of a great card trick—the watcher knows something is going on, but they’re always one step behind. If your sleight of hand is clumsy—not quick or smooth enough—the trick fails. Some of the ‘clues’ felt a bit too obvious—the narrative flips between two timelines, one in the past and one in the future—and some past events mentioned in one chapter were immediately picked up in the investigation in the next chapter, leaving the reader feeling that they’ve been hit with a forensic brick. 

But more interestingly, what works against (and for) Dark Places is its ambitious structure. The traditional mystery story followed a certain set pattern—there is a crime, a rational detective, a reporting side kick, a sympathetic character (usually the accused or a damsel in distress), and a set of suspects. Once your sympathies have been firmly established in favour of the detective and the accused / damsel, the writer is free to play a game of forensic chess, gradually revealing clues to keep the reader’s attention moving between the many suspects. Because the reader’s emotions are clearly invested elsewhere, the unravelling of the forensic knot is an entirely rational activity. What you’re interested in is ‘what happens next’, but not ‘what happens to this character’. Plot takes precedence over character. The ‘motive’ of the criminal recedes to the background—sometimes, people are just evil, that’s why.

But here is something even more interesting. There is a certain law of causality that most of us collectively believe in without being aware of it: ‘good people deserve good things to happen to them’. We might not be convinced about whether ‘good things do happen to good people’, in this lifetime or the next, but we can all agree that it should be that way. In the contemporary world, pop culture and religion is steeped with the idea: the underdog finally wins the prize and the virtuous go to heaven. In fiction, if this rule is ever broken, it usually is done to make some point about reality—that ‘power always wins’ or ‘the universe is indifferent and random’—or to provide catharsis in a tragedy. If terrible things happened to someone the reader never liked much to begin with, it wouldn’t be much of a tragedy.

Where religion and fictional universes diverge is that in a fictional world the laws of causality are fairly rigid, but the laws of morality can be far more flexible. Morality has been a dodgy subject since time immemorial, and a good writer can make a serial killer look ‘good’ or a corrupt stockbroker virtuous. This is usually achieved by putting something else human beings value a great deal on a pedestal—usually a skill or a passion—for truth, beauty or love. So when the rule ‘Good things should happen to good people’ operates within the fictional universe, the ‘good’ here does not mean a moralistic good, but more loosely, ‘good’ stands in for that relationship that readers develop with fictional characters—that wistful feeling of kinship that you know exactly what that person feels like or that tug of respect or fondness you feel for this imaginary person.

An obviously ‘likeable’ character makes the writer’s job easier—the reader takes an interest in this imaginary person and reads unto the last page to find out if everything turned out all right for them in the end. It keeps the reader’s attention anchored in the story. In the traditional form of the murder mystery, it is usually the detective, the side kick, the innocent accused or the damsel-in-distress (or a combination) who is the receptacle of this sympathy. As long as our emotions are invested in these characters, the suspects themselves retreat to the background. We see them only as foils to the main characters, either as aids who will help uncover the mystery or villains who obstruct it—but not quite as people.

However, here is where Gillian Flynn breaks the mould. Flynn specialises in writing ‘unlikeable’ characters. In a story such as Gone Girl (my interpretation based on the movie), at least some part of the audience was split according to gender lines. Some women believed ‘he had it coming’, and some men swore ‘she’s a psycho’. Since it was very obviously a man pitted against a woman, it made it easy to take sides. In Dark Places however, there are literary no likeable characters. Each of the characters are scarred in some way by childhood trauma, which leads them to becoming rather messed up adults. They are kleptomaniacs, drug addicts, failures. Even more interestingly, Flynn does away entirely with the rational voice of the detective. Instead, you are left lurching through the ‘chase’ and uncover clues with a narrator with faulty memory and who’s just emerging from about twenty-six years of denial.

The structure of Dark Places grows even more complex. The narrative careens between three distinct points of view and two timelines—there is no one emotional anchor in the story—your distrust, curiosity, and sympathy is scattered across almost the entire cast. But at the moment when you decide to spread emotional investment across characters, the story ceases to be a simple murder mystery and turns into a psychological thriller. Though Dark Places would fall into the genre of murder mystery loosely defined—the investigation of a murder—because it has no clear rational detective or ‘good character’—what becomes of greater interest—now that we are interested in all of the characters almost equally—is not what happened, but why.  Now, here is the tricky part. If the writer of a murder mystery could prove that such a crime is possible, then his or her job is done. There is no need to explain why exactly the crime was committed, as long as the ‘good guys’, the characters we’re cheering for, baffled us with their genius/bravery/luck and emerged victorious. In a psychological thriller, especially in one like Dark Places where the reader’s suspicion flits from character to character, the writer’s work is not just to prove that a particular character committed the crime, but she also needs to convince us that they were capable of doing it.

Which is where Dark Places runs aground. It has every element to make it a perfect mystery—the surprises and the twists come thick and fast. Flynn has gone out of her way to include elements that would make a perfectly gruesome murder—drugs and Satanism. Except, the story is no longer a murder mystery. It is no longer about the plot. It has turned into a story about people whose lives collide in one cataclysmic night—their need to do what is right for themselves and their loved ones running in antithetical directions and tearing them apart. The investigation is not an intellectual puzzle but a psychological dissection—why, why why? And Flynn’s answers are not very convincing. By packing in so many surprises within such a short space, the characters never quite catch up. The reader is left with a sense of disbelief—that person, really?

If only the story had been a little less ambitious—if only the murder had been a bit more run-o’-the-mill and the demands on the characters less—if only there had been less action and better thought out character introspection—this book would felt less heavy-handed and better balanced. But because of the expectations the book raises within itself because of its chosen genre and form, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should.

(That said, Gillian Flynn is an awesome writer and you should totally read her books!)


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