Book Review: Dark Places

The Facebook book club I mentioned in my last review also organizes a yearly book swap around New Year’s. My book swap partner in 2016 (going into 2017) was incredibly gracious and sent me not one but two books! One was Both Flesh and Not, which they sent based on the prodigious amounts of David Foster Wallace in my GoodReads, and one book they had really enjoyed during the year: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I tore into Both Flesh and Not right away, but kept on putting off Dark Places. I don’t normally read thrillers (though I love mysteries, so go figure) and everything I knew about Gone Girl was so unappealing that I was afraid Dark Places would be more of the same.

I put off reading Dark Places for so long that it became eligible for my annual goal of “read one book that you’ve owned for over a year but never read,” and so in the absence of anything else left on that list (which also included Journal of a SolitudeGösta Berling’s Saga, and Bödeln, among others), I finally picked it up on New Year’s and finished it within a few days.

The cover of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. The title is in a lime green sans-serif font on a black back background, with a photo negative image of weeds in the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy Phoenix

Author: Gillian Flynn

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.92 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: As a child, Libby Day’s testimony helped put her brother away for the gruesome murders of her mother and sisters. Fresh out of money and still traumatized by the memory,  Libby finally takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened that night at the behest of a group of armchair detectives who are obsessed with her case.

Content warning: Descriptions of violent, gruesome murders appear throughout, as well as a few scenes of a sexual nature; there’s also (dry, clinical) discussion of childhood sex abuse.

Recommended audience: Mystery and thriller fans; true crime fans (though it’s not a true crime novel, much of the story is centered around true crime enthusiasts); people interested in the “Satanic panic” that swept the US during the 80s; aspiring crime and thriller writers.

In-depth thoughts: Ultimately, I’m glad that I finally got around to reading Dark Places. I’m still not much of a thriller fan, but there’s a neat symmetry to the way that Flynn builds the story as it alternates between present-day and the day of the murder. It’s worth reading just for the structure alone, to see the way things are set up and subverted, to see how clues are revealed, to see how even small things turn up again in the end when you least expect them, to see how people can interpret the same events or scenes or scrap of evidence completely differently (sometimes tragically so). Dark Places is an excellent book to dissect if you’re writing your own story in a similar genre.

Review: Murder in Retrospect, or, Five Little Pigs

Appropriate that I decided to get back to my travelogues this week: the next book in the queue to be discussed here is what I read in the library that day: Murder in Retrospect!

A cover of Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs" featuring a small blue bottle, an artist's palette, and a glass of beer next to a brown beer bottle.

Author: Agatha Christie

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.96 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A young woman about to marry hires Hercules Poirot to clear the name of her mother, who was convicted of poisoning her husband some years ago.

Recommended audience: Mystery buffs

In-depth thoughts: As I mentioned before, this book was a selection for my Facebook book club. I was surprised to learn that many of the members had never read an Agatha Christie novel before, or even seen one of the innumerable screen adaptations! I went through a huge Agatha Christie binge in middle school. This was about the same time I went through a big band jazz binge as well, so I guess I was a little old lady in a 13-year-old’s body.

Even during my pubescent enthusiasm, I never tackled all of the novels and short stories. (Our school library only had so many books, after all.) Murder in Retrospect (or Five Little Pigs, whichever title you prefer) was one that I hadn’t originally read, so I was excited to read it. I had a nice afternoon in the Bethlehem Public Library doing just that: reading. I finished it in one sitting.

I still love a good Agatha Christie novel, even today, but I have to admit that this one was a little disappointing. There are lots of recurring secondary characters that make a Poirot novel what it is—Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp—and none of them make an appearance. The nature of the mystery also means that the bulk of the book is everyone repeating their testimony of the same day. This is, of course, part and parcel of any mystery, but because this is a cold case (or rather, an already-closed case), there’s nothing else for Poirot to go on, nor is there any sense of urgency.  Without any clues to inspect, without any banter with Hastings or Japp, and without the possibility of bringing the true murderer to justice, Murder in Retrospect is more repetitive and less fun than the Christie novels I read when I was younger.

If you’re a mystery buff, you can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie novel. Even a bad Christie novel is still pretty fun; I’ve always like Christie’s writing style just as much as her mysteries. The repetition in this story might be helpful for English students, but there is also the danger that outdated vocabulary might pose something of a hurdle.  (I can’t recall anything particular as I sit down to write this, but with a book initially published in 1942, I’m sure there are a couple of outdated vocabulary choices.)

Overall, I’m a completionist when it comes to writers I like, so I’m glad I read it. I don’t think Murder in Retrospect will be a novel I pick up again, though.