“Dark Places” is a best selling murder mystery novel by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is famous for her mystery novels, namely for her book, “Gone Girl,” which received even more acclaim for its film adaptation. “Dark Places,” as a novel, has been overshadowed by other works in this author’s catalogue, but it is no less fascinating, grim and gripping. If anything, its subject matter ranks it amongst the darkest novels I’ve read. Clocking in at 349 pages, this book is just long enough to steal your attention away for a while but not so long that you can’t binge read it in a few days’ time (and you certainly will want to).

Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

On its surface, this novel is a mystery involving murder, family secrets, cults and small-town isolation. The main character, a young woman named Libby Day, is at once unlikeable in personality, but fascinating nonetheless. She is immature, petulant and bitter, but as her story unfolds, it becomes clear why she is like this. The reader will find it hard to hate her entirely as they uncover the traumas of her past, and Libby’s intrigue is one of the many reasons I rate this novel highly. Within the first few pages, readers learn that Libby is the sole survivor of the massacre of her family in a seemingly satanic act. Among the victims were her struggling mother and two younger sisters.

The massacre was highly sensationalized and covered prolifically by the media, something that causes this event to follow Libby every step of her life. As an adult, the protagonist of the novel struggles to find meaning in the remains of her life. She seems, at times, to never have truly grown a day after the event happened, and author Flynn’s portrayal of the trauma pulls no punches.

The plot kicks off when members of a serial killer fanatic fan-club contact Libby imploring her to help them uncover the truth about the past and present facts of the event. Through her eyes and through flashbacks, readers watch the characters unravel what really happened to the Day family. One of the things that makes this novel so strong is the alternation of perspectives. The story is built up of pieces of the present and flashbacks to the past leading up to the massacre. The perspective also switches between key players in the story which challenges the morals and emotions of readers. The subject matter is already dark, but Gillian Flynn wants to take readers to even more convoluted, dark places.

Another strength of this novel is the subtext underneath the scandal. Under the surface, this novel makes some very important social observations. While the murder plot propels the story forward, readers are taken to the heart of Middle America where we see that the real Dark Places are inside of humans and the culture they’ve created. First, this novel critiques America’s morbid curiosity surrounding cults and murderers. This novel is very period-savvy; the massacre occurred in the mid 1980s, a time in our reality that was riding on the coat-tails of similar massacres and killings. People have called this time period the “Deadliest Decade.” America was just recovering from the 14 murders committed by Richard Ramirez and Jeffrey Dahmer. Furthermore, the years after Charles Manson’s crimes had the general population obsessed with cult activities. This novel is an important look at the cruel nature of these crimes and the harmful impact of people who glorify them. Much like in the novel, there is no shortage of people who contact murderers and victims, collect memorabilia and news clippings, and commemorate these events through conventions. “Dark Places” is a warning about what happens when we desensitize ourselves to trauma.

This novel also touches on poverty, broken families and the social risks of living in a small town where word travels fast and is quickly misconstrued. The family grows up in Kansas in impoverished conditions. The strain that this, in addition to the absence of the once abusive father, puts on the mother and son in the story is one of the many things that contributes to the awful fate of the family. While media does scratch the surface of these issues from time to time, “Dark Places” takes it to a level that people are often uncomfortable reaching. One of the things that makes this novel so heartbreaking is the lives that the characters led before their deaths. All of these issues are exacerbated by the small-town mentality, which is ironically similar to cult mentalities. This novel also discusses dating abuse, pedophilia, peer pressure, drug use, masculinity and adolescent depression.

If you are interested in an emotionally challenging novel that tackles dark but prevalent social issues, “Dark Places” does it very well. The writing is sophisticated by nature but can be easily understood. The characters are unique, and there is an array of characters both likeable and detestable. Though the ending may be a bit lacking for some (hence the 4/5 rating), there is not a dull moment from start to finish.