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Archive for the ‘Mystery Fiction’ Category

I’ve noted before that the choice of books made by my book club, admittedly often on very limited information about what to read next, is idiosyncratic, sometimes good, sometimes less so. This one is definitely less so. When I started reading the book, I realised that I’d read at least some of it before, but I hadn’t any memory of what happened. It’s that sort of book.

The story is set partly in seventeenth century Venice, and partly in more or less present day Venice (there don’t seem to be many mobile phones or computers). The plot begins with Corradino Manin, a master glass blower, who has returned to Venice from France, where he revealed the secrets of glass blowing and mirror making to Louis XIV’s court. His defection now means he is a marked man, for glass blowers were forbidden to leave Venice so as to maintain its monopoly in fine glass making. The story of why he left and why he returned runs throughout. Alongside it is the story of his distant descendent Leonora Manin. Distraught at the breakdown of her marriage, she flees from London to Venice, the home of the father she never knew. She already has some skill in glass blowing; now she wants to work as a glass blower in Venice. And she is driven to find out more about her ancestor, Corradino. Most of the story is told from the perspective of these two characters, though there are a few odd cases where we get the perspective of other characters.

The plot conforms to two genres. On one level, it is a romance. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, but there are no prizes for guessing that they overcome these and end up together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a romance plot – Pride and Prejudice, for example, has one – but the formula needs better handling than it gets here to remain fresh and interesting. On a second level, it is a mystery story, where Leonora undertakes a quest (sort of) to find more about the life of her ancestor, which she needs to do in order to achieve her dream in the present day. There are some potentially interesting parallels between Leonora and Corradino’s motives, but little is made of them. There are some links between the romance and the mystery, but it is hardly what you might call intricate plotting. Some of the story is pretty silly, too.

One aspect of a book that can rescue a fairly predictable formulaic plot is the setting. Fiorato, who is herself part Venetian, has certainly chosen an interesting place and an interesting craft to write about. Who would have known, for example, that the glass blowers of old had worn away the skin on their fingers so they had no fingerprints? The details of the glass-making trade seem to be more or less authentic, both then and now, and Venice is a clearly a magical city. Can the setting carry the book? Unfortunately I don’t think so.

The problem is that the writing is pedestrian. As always, I find it hard to say exactly what it wrong with it, but it just doesn’t ring true. The characters fail to come alive because they are described in unimaginative ways. The journalist Vittoria, for example, has hair that ‘flashed blue-black in the sunlight’, ‘perfect teeth’, ‘glossy red lips’ and ‘sexy confidence’. This is the language of Mills and Boon romances. What characters say is stilted and trite. Even when Fiorato is trying to be dramatic, she succeeds only in producing melodrama. ‘He laughed harder with the last of his breath.’ Really? And most annoying of all is her habit of placing what is supposed to be a character’s self-reflection and insight in indented italics, as in ‘I shouldn’t have said that. How presumptuous and … clumsy. I’m behaving like a schoolgirl.’ There should be no need for such signposting of feelings; they should be expressed as part of the ordinary writing. I found these indented sections increasingly irritating.

So overall, pretty much a disappointment. Fiorato has a history degree from Oxford, so one might have expected better. You can find out more about her – and her three subsequent books – here. And if you think I’m harsh – after all, the book seems to have sold well – have a look at these comments on Goodreads. There’s lots more detail there about what one reviewer thinks is wrong with the book. And I have to agree with him. Not all of the other Goodreads reviewers feel the same way; some find it harmless escapism, or think the setting redeems it somewhat. I’m all for harmless escapism sometimes, but not when it makes me bored and irritated, as this book does.

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Back to a good old fashioned mystery story this week, though the writer, Clare Francis has had anything but a normal preparation for a mystery writing career. (Admittedly, there probably isn’t any ideal preparation for writing mysteries – it’s just that this particular preparation does seem particularly unusual. But I guess her namesake, Dick Francis, was a jockey …) She trained as a ballet dancer and became a household name – at the time – as a long distance single-handed yachtswoman. She wrote several books about her experiences, Come Hell or High Water (1977), an account of a solo voyage across the Atlantic, being my first introduction to her work. Since then she has written four thrillers and eight very readable mystery stories, of which this is the sixth (2001).

Most of Francis’s mystery stories fit the classic mystery pattern where an ordinary person undertakes a search – a quest – for someone or something from their past. A Death Divided is no exception. Joe McGrath is asked by close family friends, the Laskeys, to search for their daughter, Jenna, who hasn’t been heard of for four years. Jenna and Joe had been best friends growing up, and it was Joe who introduced her to his unconventional friend Jamie Chetwood. Joe was devastated when she married Chetwood, and he soon lost touch with them. Now both are nowhere to be found, and quite apart from her parents’ distress at losing her, Jenna’s signature is needed on an important document. What can Joe do to find her? The story moves back and forward in time, as Joe remembers incidents he shared with Jenna, his meeting with Chetwood, and the few times he saw them after their marriage. As in most quests, he experiences both help and hindrance, and his search doesn’t turn out as he had hoped. Seasoned mystery readers will probably pick up the clues that lead to the classic twist which resolves the story, but as a plot it works quite well.

While the story is clearly plot driven, Francis, as always, writes well enough to make the book interesting for its characters and setting. Joe is a lawyer struggling for job satisfaction in a large legal firm. After the death of Joe’s mother, his ageing father has become obsessed with medical negligence cases. Jenna’s parents, Dr Laskey and his wife Helena, who gave Joe most of the love and warmth he experienced after his mother’s death, were originally Polish refugees who still don’t always quite fit into English life. The weather is bleak, Joe’s father’s house is cold and neglected, the unnamed midlands town Joe comes from is shabby and run down, there is little light or colour anywhere.  None of these details matters to the story, but they give it a depth and interest, and a sense of impending hopelessness and gloom which goes well with the action.

My main criticism is that the character of Jenna, which is important to the story, doesn’t seem consistently developed. Except for the times that Joe recalls being with her, she is nearly always off-stage, and what she is thinking and feeling is reported by others. She is a function of the story, rather than a real presence. The same could also be said of Sarah, Joe’s current girlfriend, but I think Francis has been much more successful in her portrayal partly because Sarah is present and revealed through conversation, which is one of Francis’s strengths.

This, like all of Francis’s mystery stories, is definitely unchallenging holiday reading. But that’s what I feel like sometimes. There’s no sex and little physical violence, which can be a refreshing change in crime stories, though of course there is psychological violence. If you compare Francis with the master of psychological thrillers Barbara Vine, she would probably come into second place, but after all, that’s setting the bar quite high. You can read more about Clare Francis and her books here. She hasn’t written a new one since 2008, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for one in the future.

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It was with much sadness that I heard last week of the death of Ruth Rendell. I guess it wasn’t totally unexpected – she was, after all, 85 – but her death leaves a gap in crime writing that will be hard to fill.

Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930-2015) wrote three different kinds of crime fiction. There is her Inspector Wexford series of police procedurals, her stories which involve crime but don’t focus on its detection (Ruth Rendell Mark II), and her psychological crime stories written under the name Barbara Vine

Rendell is reticent about her personal history.  Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers.  Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man.  She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’.  After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times.  She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950.  They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later.  They had one son.  She wrote six books before she approached a publisher; when she did, her books were instantly successful.  From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories.  In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and from then on continued to produce books in all three categories.  In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government.  Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor (2002).

I remember reading From Doon with Death not long after it was published. I thought it was OK as a standard police procedure with some human interest around the Wexford’s and his off-sider Burdon’s families, but not brilliant. The Wikipedia entry on the book, however, says that ‘although the identity of the victim’s lover “Doon” would not be much of a surprise to the 21st century reader, at the time of its release it was considered ground-breaking and daring’. I’ve always thought that Rendell’s writing grew in stature as she developed the character of DCI Reg Wexford. In the early books, Wexford’s role was essentially just to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret.  Later he grew into a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like,’ she says, ‘– I’ve done that more and more’.

Even more important, though, was the development of his social conscience – the lens through Rendell’s own concerns for social, political and moral issues were reflected. Three books in particular stand out for me: Simisola (1995), Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999). They deal with racism, environmental issues and child abuse.  Rendell has always held left of centre views, and was active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show ‘the world as it is’ led her to tackle issues she thought important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond most police procedurals. It is this grounded, thoughtful appraisal of aspects of British society that will be most missed.

The books that come after these are still good; I’ve reviewed several of them, and they continue up to the time when Wexford has retired – though he can’t keep out of the detecting business. They include The Monster in the Box (2009) here, The Vault (2011) here and sadly the last one, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) here.

For all that I admire the Wexford series, however, my favourite of Rendell’s books remains one of her stand-alone Barbara Vine ones – The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (1998). One difference between the Vine stories and the Wexford and the other psychological mystery Rendell stories is that the former involve much more reference to events in the past. The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy also differs from the Wexfords in being a mystery story, rather than a crime story. It might even be suggested that it is a novel about family relationships rather than a mystery story; it is a story about deception, rather than crime. Sarah Candless is the daughter of a famous novelist, Gerald Candless. After his death, she sets out to write his biography. But all is not as it seems when she beings looking into her father’s past. Like a lot of other mystery stories, it is a quest, and it builds up a strong sense of mystery, and ultimately, suspense.  It makes for a complex and satisfying story.

You can read the obituary of Ruth Rendell in the Guardian here. In 2014 she created a new detective, Colin Quell, for The Girl Next Door. A must-read for me.

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I recently saw the final episode of Tony Robinson’s World War I, which covers the last year of the war and the Allied victory, and it reminded me how accurate a picture John Buchan gives of the final German offensive in his 1919 book Mr Standfast. The title even echoes the argument of one of the historians on Robinson’s program: that the British fought best with their backs to the wall – ie, standing fast. I’m sure there are other books – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind – which give a much more realistic account of the experience of the war. Buchan’s book is one of his series of ‘shockers’ featuring Richard Hannay; he defines these as ‘the romance [– read adventure -] where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. They were designed to divert, not educate. They are books I read when I was young and I have a real soft spot for them – Empire loyalty and all. But my point is that Buchan had an accurate view of what happened, and used it cleverly in his story.

Buchan had good reason to know what was going on at the front. A lawyer by training, he worked as a war correspondent, as director of intelligence in the Ministry of Information with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and later as a director of Reuters news service. Greenmantle, the other of the Hannay books directly concerned with the war (reviewed here) also has some interesting observations about aspects of the conflict. These include the Young Turks movement and the Islamic revival in Turkey in the early years of the war. Hannay, working undercover in Germany, is actually involved with shipping arms to the Turks to fight the Allies at Gallipoli. And the Russian assault on the Turkish city of Erzurum is real – one of the few Tsarist victories of the war. Here, only the end of the story involves the factual trajectory of the war, when the Germans made their last desperate thrust to get around the Allied positions in northern France.

In this book, Hannay is again recalled from active duty and sent to work undercover, this time in a pacifist enclave at Biggleswick in rural England, the premise being that one of the German spies from The Thirty-Nine Steps is living and working there. Buchan is not hostile to the pacifists, though he clearly prefers those who serve; he makes a hero of a conscientious objector who becomes an unarmed messenger at the front. The code Hannay uses is based on The Pilgrim’s Progress; Mr Standfast is a character in that book. In this one, Peter Pienaar, who has joined the RAF, is his counterpart. The American Blenkiron is also in the story, and there is a new character, Mary Lamington, who Hannay falls in love with. Hannay is soon on the trail of the spy’s network, and chasing him through Switzerland and Italy. As with any quest, there are setbacks as well as victories. The reader always knows what will ultimately happen – it’s that sort of book – but Buchan is more than anything else a great story teller, and keeps the reader thoroughly intrigued along the way.

Mr Standfast is nevertheless my least favourite of the four Hannay stories, (not counting the much later Island of Sheep (1936), or the two other books in which he makes a minor appearance). Too much of it isn’t ‘just inside the borders of the possible’; it’s firmly outside. There’s too much coincidence. The villain gets to gloat over Hannay and of course tell him of his nefarious plans – a plot device I never like. Buchan is notoriously bad at female characters; Mary is far too good to be true. The section dealing with the war comes at the end, and isn’t fully integrated into the rest of the story; it fulfils a purpose more related to what happens in The Pilgrim’s Progress than what happens in the spy story. You have to suspend disbelief, but if you can do so, despite my reservations it’s a good read.

While I found the section on the war at the end to be a clever use of imaginary events that could have happened , Buchan perhaps didn’t take the war story far enough. What he emphasises is the importance of aircraft reconnaissance to the battle to stop the Germans breaking through at Amiens. He doesn’t present it as the turning point it was in the nature of the war, from the horrific slaughter of the static trench stalemate that had prevailed for so long, to a much more fluid and coordinated push by air and ground forces supported by the relatively new weapon, the tank (first used September 1916). I was pleased to see Tony Robinson giving credit to the Australian General, John Monash, for the so called ’Dark Day of the War’ for Germany, the battle which the incident Buchan describes is part of. A civil engineer, not a career soldier, Monash saw the potential of tanks and planes more readily than some of his professional army colleagues. If only this had happened earlier in the war … I might need to read Roland Perry’s biography of him – Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War (2007).

There’s a lot about John Buchan on the internet; you can read a brief outline of his life and work here. Aside from being Governor General of Canada, Buchan is probably best remembered for his shockers, though he would have preferred to be remembered as an historian. You could look out for his own History of the Great War (1922).

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I liked Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) so much that I included it in my ‘best of’ 2013 list. You can read my review here. So naturally I had to see the movie. One of things I particularly like about the book is the clever way misdirection is used to create suspense, and I was interested to see how this would be translated on film. I think it worked pretty well – though some other things I thought were strengths of the book were missing from the movie.

The film follows the story of the book pretty faithfully, with only slight abbreviations – not surprising, since Gillian Flynn wrote the screen play. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? In the book, both Nick and Amy admit to being unreliable narrators; this is less clear in the movie. Amy’s diary comes into the book much sooner than it does in the film, removing one source of misdirection, but I think viewers who haven’t read the book will still get the same reaction to the major misdirection that drives the plot that you get reading the book. I knew what was coming and I still enjoyed it. There isn’t much physical violence in the book, but what there is, is presented very graphically in the film; a bit of a look-away-now moment for me. But overall, a clever film, well acted, darkly funny in parts, and exciting in others.

One of the friends I saw the movie with, who hadn’t read the book, felt that the ending was not really credible. She wondered whether the actor who played Nick, Ben Affleck, was too pleasant and sympathetic – even given his behaviour in the story. In the book, the reader learns a lot more about his talent for misdirection, and his psychology, his inner thoughts and the influence of his father, all of which present him as flawed and accentuate his sense of being ‘hollow’, even while they explain it. I also wondered if she might have found the ending a little unsatisfactory if it was assumed that the story could be taken as a realistic portrayal of a marriage – after all, the blurb for the film says it ‘unearths the secrets at the heart of a modern marriage’. I thought the story of Nick and Amy in the book was satire, not an accurate representation. On those grounds, the ending of the book is quite appropriate. But the film wasn’t played as satire, (at least I don’t think so, and maybe I’m wrong about the book anyway), so the alternative of a resolution that is supposed to be realistic and takes ‘modern marriage’ at its face value perhaps didn’t work perfectly.

The other major difference I found between the book and the movie was in the setting. In both the book and the film, Nick and Amy have lost their jobs in New York because of the Global Financial Crisis, and moved to Nick’s decaying home town in Missouri. In the movie, they live in a big, well-appointed house in a pleasant-looking neighbourhood and Nick drives an expensive-looking SUV. It’s true that the shopping mall in the town is shown as derelict, as it is in the book, but I thought the film completely lacked the sense of economic decline that characterised the town in the book – ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ and its surroundings – ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. This is a pity, because for me, Nick and Amy’s relationship can also be described as ‘post-humanity’ – rather than a ‘normal’ breakdown of modern marriage. The movie is about what individual husbands and wives can do to each other; the book puts this behaviour into a much more problematic social and economic context. Yes, I said above that the author wrote the screen play …

Even given these reservations, I still enjoyed the movie. There will always be a debate about whether a book is better than the movie made of it, or whether reading the book spoils the movie. In most cases I find I like the book best, though there are notable exceptions to this rule (see Lord of the Rings, where I loved both, and thought the film even added something, and the Harry Potter movies which improved on the books by removing some things). You can read a discussion of this film v this book here. And you can see a trailer for the film here.

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After reading Evie Wyld’s traumatic but powerful All the Birds Singing – see my previous post – I was looking for something a bit more relaxed. But having found it, am I sure I really prefer comfortable?

Goddard is a well-established writer of mystery stories, where an ordinary person finds himself (and yes, all his heroes are male, as far as I can remember) having to uncover some dark secret.  Most of his twenty or so books deal with the impact such secrets from the past have on the present – see for example my review of the book before this one, Fault Line (2012). This one (2013), however, is set fully in the past. And a sequel to it – The Corners of the Globe (2014) – has already been published, going on from where The Ways of the World leaves off.

It is 1919. James Maxted, recently a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, wants to start a flying school. But his plans are interrupted by the death of his father, Sir Henry Maxted. Sir Henry was a retired diplomat recalled to service at the Paris Peace Conference. According to the French police, he died in an accident. James goes to Paris to bring his father’s body home, but soon finds there are enough ‘oddities and inconsistencies’ to throw doubt on the official version of events. He feels he has to investigate further. And one thing leads to another. What is the meaning of a mysterious list Sir Henry has left with a beautiful young widow? Why does the British Secret Service have an interest? Who else in the diplomatic community may hold a clue to Sir Henry’s death? You get the picture.

One of the things that interests me about ordinary person mysteries is the motivation of the main character to undertake the always dangerous task of uncovering the truth. Is it credible? Here, Maxted wants to find out why his father died; he feels driven by a sense of family loyalty. I don’t find this totally convincing in the sense that Maxted is rather braver than the average ordinary person. Goddard accounts for this in terms of his war experience: flying small planes over a battle field was not for the faint-hearted. He has been ‘forged by the fire, not consumed.’ When someone suggests he should be afraid, his response is: ‘I seem to have lost the knack’. But I think I’d be more convinced if Maxted wasn’t a bit of a cardboard cut-out – steadfast, loyal and resolute – in striking contrast to his stuffy older brother who just wants to avoid scandal. This is Boys Own stuff. Goddard actually describes Maxted’s actions at one point without apparent irony as ‘derring-do’, a phrase I thought was only ever used facetiously. Goddard hasn’t drawn any of the characters with any depth, which is disappointing. They are there just to make the story work.

And does it? Narrative is one of Goddard’s mains strengths, and he has crafted a clever enough plot. It moves along quickly, the short chapters adding to the pace. As with other amateurs, Maxted’s main way of operating is to ‘keep pushing’ and to see ‘who’s pushing back’. There is treachery and betrayal – common Goddard themes – and Maxted isn’t always right in his assumptions. There is a degree of happenstance and luck. But Goddard has also used the idea that ‘the things we think are unimportant are often the things that catch us out.’ In one case, what would otherwise be a gaping hole in the plot is covered by the explanation being deferred till next time. There are also some very loose ends, presumably deliberately left so that they can be taken up again in the next book. Indeed it may well be that some of what looks a bit like padding – Maxted’s expertise in flying, for example, or his period as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down – will become relevant in the next book, to which this one is clearly a prelude.

It may also be that the relevance of the Peace Conference comes into sharper focus in the next book. It’s clearly an interesting time, and not one I’ve read about elsewhere. But apart from being an occasion bringing together a number of diplomats, and a matter for concern about the security of the various delegations, the Conference, and what it is trying to achieve, doesn’t play much of a part. Nor has Goddard put much work into the social setting of post-World War I England and France. Maxted’s off-sider, Sam Twentyman, his sergeant and former mechanic, finds it hard not to call his former officer ‘sir’; class is still alive and well, but is glossed over. Paris is cold and bleak, and there are demobilised soldiers begging on the streets, but there is no real sense of post war trauma.

This is perhaps disappointing, because as I noted in the earlier post on Goddard, he set out with higher standards than he seems to be achieving here. He says ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. Well, there’s intricacy of plot and narrative drive, but the richness of language – and of characterisation – seem to have got lost along the way. Some of his earlier novels were better. It seems I need a book that is a bit more of a challenge for real satisfaction.

You can find more about Robert Goddard – and the next book – here.

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A while back I reviewed Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl (2012). I liked it so much that I included it in my five favourite books of 2013, and decided I should read Flynn’s earlier work. Dark Places is her second book, published in 2009 – though my edition says on the cover ‘from the author of Gone Girl’, suggesting that the third book is carrying the less successful second one. I think this suggestion is pretty right, though it may be a matter of taste rather than quality. Certainly it’s a very different book from the one that followed it.

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a massacre at her mother’s debt-ridden Kansas farm, twenty four years ago when she was seven. She lost her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, fifteen year old Ben, was convicted of the murders and jailed for life; it was Libby’s evidence against him that ensured his conviction. It soon becomes clear that the family was in a bad way before the murders; Libby now lives in a state of aimless depression. She has used up the fund that was created for her from donations by well-wishers, she has no job, no skills and no motivation to acquire any. Then she receives a letter from the ’Kill Club’, a macabre organisation made up of people with obsessions about particular crimes. They believe Ben to be innocent. They will pay her to talk to them, to sell family mementos to them, and above all to find out if someone else could have committed the crimes. Libby wants the money and knows that her carefully coached testimony as a child wasn’t true, but what sort of can of worms will she open if she has to go back to that time – a ‘Darkplace’ she tries never to think about? What if Ben really is innocent? Who else might have done it?

Half of the book tells the story, with Libby as narrator, of her search for the truth, which gradually becomes as important to her as the money. Alternate chapters tell what happened on the day leading up to the murders from the perspective of Patty, Libby’s mother, and of Ben, though in the third person; a series of events is recounted that spiral into worse and worse disaster. As in Gone Girl, there are multiple voices; each has its distinctive tone. Flynn has a very good ear for nuances of region, age and gender. This is a very clever narrative structure, as Libby’s story expands the possibility of arriving at the truth and even changing her life, while Patty’s and Ben’s stories can only close in, edging closer and closer to catastrophe we know is about to happen. And of course, ‘every single person in this case lies, is lying, did lie.’

Libby is certainly no heroine struggling for freedom from her messed up life. Right from the beginning she presents herself as seriously damaged. The book begins with the sentence: ‘I have a meanness inside me. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something is wrong with it.’ This is a theme she returns to again and again. Is it an explanation? Or an excuse? Her mother feels constantly inadequate; she has done the best she can, but the farm is mortgaged to the hilt, there’s never enough money, her ex-husband, Runner Day, is worse than useless: ‘wily and dumb at the same time’, dealing drugs, always on the scrounge. Her sisters are mean and whiney, and her brother Ben is an angry and hostile teenager. But Patty loves her kids, and would defend then if she could; can Libby be blamed for only occasionally glimpsing this? Can she actually change for the better?  The only reason you don’t thoroughly dislike her is that she is very self-aware; she knows when she’s being hateful. And some of her terrible habits turn out to be useful.

What happens during the final day before the murders, and the murders themselves, is actually very nasty, so nasty that I skipped over a couple of bits. I think Flynn describes Ben’s situation very well; you can see how it could happen, even if it is a bit over the top. A fear of the devil worship he is accused of did actually sweep the United States in the 1980s, crazy as it sounds. Communities  – especially poor rural ones? – can get caught up in mindless hysteria. Teenager boys do struggle to understand how to be men; we might blame Ben for some of his decisions, but Flynn makes them understandable. I’m not so sure about Patty, though.

I took some of the social relations in Gone Girl to be satirical, though I thought the tacky mid-west landscape the story was set in was realistic enough. There doesn’t seem to me to be any satire in this book. The social relations are a real reflection of deadening poverty, greed and selfishness – with only a tiny bit of love. And the physical landscape – the run-down farm, the failed tourist town, the toxic dump and the plastic bags blowing out of the landfill – also ring true. Libby’s self-deprecation may lighten the blighted tone somewhat, but is just that; it has no wider social reference. Overall I couldn’t help thinking that Gone Girl is nasty in a clever way, whereas Dark Places is nasty in a cruel and twisted way. They’ve made a film based on the book, but I certainly won’t be going to see it.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here, and the film here. It is to be released in September of this year.

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