Dark Places - Debbie Bennett

There’s a marina not far from our house – Aqueduct Marina near Church Minshull – where Andy and I often go for a Saturday brunch. It’s rather relaxing to sit and eat and watch the narrowboats come and go. There’s a bookcase there, stacked with second-hand paperbacks, and a collection tin to donate to keep the waterways moving. I often buy and donate paperbacks (and I left copies of my own books there once or twice as well).

Last weekend, I found a copy of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I bought for the princely sum of one pound. No, the writer will get no benefit from this onward sale, but at least she’ll get a warm fuzzy glow from knowing she’s helped with the upkeep of Britain’s canal system.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** If you haven’t read this book, intend to read it, and don’t wish to either be affected by my opinions or find out the ending, please click off this page and go and do something more productive. Write something, maybe? Watch tv? Whatever. But don’t read this. You have been warned …

So I’ve read most of Flynn’s books. Gone Girl really wasn’t my cup of tea (neither the book nor the film) – not due to the writing, but more to do with the plot itself. Flynn is an accomplished writer, and the fact that she can craft an entire novel around two inherently unlikeable self-obsessed characters, with barely a redeeming quality between them, says a lot for her storytelling abilities. I read Sharp Objects a while back too, which to be honest I can’t remember that much about. But Dark Places I really rather liked.

It’s an interesting structure. The present, as told by the main protagonist Libby in first person, and the past, as told by various other characters in third person. It works, once you get into the rhythm of it. I quite like these alternative story-telling methods when they’re done properly.

And therein lies the problem. When it’s done properly. When you tell a story from the point of view of character A, you can only know what character A knows – whether you’re first person, third person, or whatever. That’s easy enough to understand. Joe Bloggs doesn’t know his wife’s about to slip poison in his cocoa, so he can’t suddenly decide to go to the pub on a whim instead of staying in that night – and if he does venture out to his local without a very good reason, you can bet your life that in this world of the instant review, somebody will call you out on Amazon or Goodreads.

But flip this on its head. Joe Bloggs doesn’t know his wife actually intends to kill him – but he does know that Betty is mentally unstable and the neighbour saw her buying poison while muttering how much she hated her husband. And the knowing of it must cause him to act or behave appropriately.

That’s where Dark Places fell down for me, as many other books have done. Libby’s mother Patty has engaged a hit-man to kill her – Patty – so that her family will benefit from the life insurance. This is a crucial point in the book, a part of the whodunnit big-reveal at the end. Which would be fine, if we didn’t get a lot of the build-up from Patty’s point of view throughout the story. And yet she never once thinks about this little nugget of information while she’s struggling to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads. Really? We get a few tiny clues as she’s lying on the floor dying, but that’s way too late and turns the whole scene into one giant plot device.

That’s cheating, in my opinion. If we are in Character A’s head, we’d better know not only just what Character A knows, but everything Character A knows. Or at least everything relevant to the story. All the while we are in Patty’s head and she’s worrying about her ex-husband, and where the next meal is coming from and desperately searching for her missing son, and yet that vital scene of her engaging a hit-man is not only missing, but never even thought about. If I was contemplating killing myself, for whatever reason, I’m damned sure it’d occupy most of my brain for most of the time! If not the wheres and the hows, then at least the worry about the whens and whether the kids would be involved. Has she done the right thing? Will it hurt? What if he doesn’t do it, even though he’s been paid? What if he tells the police? The questions are endless.

Don’t get me wrong. As I said – I really liked this book. I’ll probably give it a 4 at some point when I get around to an Amazon review. But I’m angry with the writer for breaking that pact with the reader and losing my trust.

Point-of-view. POV. There’s so much written about it – what it is and how to do it right as a writer. But this is so wrong.


Bill Kirton said…
Like you, I didn't rate Gone Girl at all. I bought it because (unlike you) I'd enjoyed Sharp Objects. So I'd more or less decided not to bother with any more of hers unless reviews suggested it might be worth it. That's why I had no hesitation in ignoring your spolier alert and I'm glad I read on. I think comments about POV are sometimes uninformed but you've highlighted something that frequently frustrates me as a reader. The mechanical aspects of the narration have to be right, otherwise, as you rightly say, the writer's cheating.
Jan Needle said…
No accounting for tastes, is there? I came across Gone Girl before it became famous and loved it. I read another one, which I can't remember the name of (as is my way!) which was even better. If I wasn't such an idle bugger, I'd read some more. Ah me.,..
Anonymous said…
You are absolutely right. Just doesn't work for something so crucial to the plot (like the actual murder!) for the character in question not to allude to it mentally at all. There are examples of writers being in characters' heads and not showing everything - I thought at once of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. It's clear from the start that the main character has a secret we are not to know... yet. Spufford manages this by zooming in and out of his characters' minds, very difficult to achieve (I don't think I'd manage it... yet) but he does it superbly.
Lydia Bennet said…
I didn't like Gone Girl, too many plot holes, especially at the end, and the 'hiring a hit man to kill you' is an old, hackneyed plot line and you are right, if we read her pov, it's cheating the reader to never mention it. I get the feeling people read her books, who don't normally read crime, and so aren't so familiar with the kind of issues you describe and are happy to believe the hype.
Anonymous said…
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Umberto Tosi said…
Gone Girl didn't send me either. I'm not a fan of plot twists, particularly elaborate ones too clever by half. Like any reader, I like surprises, but those that spring from the action and as consequences of characters with whom I've become involved by the time the twists occur - provided, of course, that writing works. Again, as you so rightly point out, POV is the key!

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