A quarter of a century ago on a remote Kansas farm, a couple of days into 1985, Libby Day’s mother and two elder sisters were slaughtered in an In Cold Blood-style killing. Libby herself escaped into the winter’s night and, despite losing some digits to frostbite, survived to give the testimony that damned her elder brother Ben to life in prison for the murders.
In the decades since, there’s been for Libby no happy ending, no reconciliation with life: she lives a borderline-criminal existence on the fringes of society, reveling in her own meanness of spirit. And the fund that was collected all those years ago for the brutally orphaned Libby is now at last running out.
So, when a group of rather sick true-crime aficionados called the Kill Club approaches her with offers of actual cash to reinvestigate the old crime and that testimony of hers, she jumps at the chance. Initially it’s just the money that appeals — how long can she string them along? — but soon she begins to doubt her own assumptions and her memories of that fateful night and becomes invested in finding out what really happened.
Of course, that could be dangerous work . . .
The tale’s told in three alternating strands. The main one is Libby’s first-person narrative today (i.e., 2009ish); the other two follow Libby’s mother, Patty, and Ben in the hours leading up to the massacre. Since we know what’s going to happen to Ben and Patty, and since Libby seems encaged by her own nihilism, it’s rather as if we’re watching the slow-motion train-wrecks of three lives simultaneously. This does not make for light or breezy reading, as you can imagine: in fact, Dark Places is a profoundly depressing book — which is not intended as a criticism, just an observation. It’s like one of those rural neonoir movies in which all the characters are trapped in their own physical and mental squalor, their own limited worldview, without any prospect for redemption. After a while, though, I found I was in fact caring about modern-day Libby, however obnoxious she might be, and the same for Patty, struggling with her own inadequacies.
At the same time, though, for reasons that I cannot explain, I steadily lost interest in the mystery aspect of the book. Either we’d learn that Ben was innocent and find out who really dunnit or the big twist would be Libby discovering that Ben dunnit after all, and I wasn’t really too bothered as to which alternative would turn out to be the truth. (Libby herself was too young at the time for any realistic possibility of that other potential big twist that might have occurred to you.) My loss of concern about the solution to the crime actually served me in good stead, because the one that Flynn finally offers us is decidedly out of left field. (POTENTIAL SPOILER: It actually falls into the Passing Tramp category, if you’re familiar with GAD terminology.)
I’d forgotten until the narrative reminded me of it that 1985 was smack in the middle of the Satanic Panic, that shameful period of US social history when popular culture assumed that Devil-worshiping sects were everywhere and were abusing children on an industrial scale; there are still people rotting in jail because falsely convicted as a result of this ludicrous but widespread delusion. (A version of the delusion has its adherents today, with thousands believing garbage conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate, concerning pedophile rings. It seems there’s nothing so idiotic that it can’t convince swaths of the credulous.)
The grounding of the Satanic Panic was that, as is now fairly well understood, child psychologists and their ilk can, even with the best and most honest of intentions, coax out of children the most outrageous lies, which the children then start themselves remembering as the real truth. (There are some good books around on the Satanic Panic and on the pseudoscience surrounding “recovered memories.” I cover the topic in passing in my own book Denying Science.)
Flynn incorporates this aspect I think very well, very convincingly, although I couldn’t help wishing she’d taken it further, given us some more of the interaction between the child Libby and kindly Dr. Brooner, who drew out of her all manner of false memories about her big brother.
In sum, despite all of the things Dark Places had going for it, and despite the fact that I often found it moderately absorbing, it didn’t offer me the rollercoaster ride I’d been expecting: I was never on the edge of my seat.
The last line of the book’s blurb is pretty goddam misleading.