Out with the old, in with the new. Happy 2014!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I always love those quiet days between Christmas and New Year. They’re the perfect time for reading, and – for the bloggers among us – provide a great chance to tie up loose ends and plan ahead.

Some loose ends now neatly tied up in a bow:

  • I took part in two reading challenges last year, the 2013 Global Reading Challenge and the 2013 Translation Challenge. I completed both, and enjoyed the global challenge in particular, as it made me reflect on the geographical distribution of my reading (somewhat biased towards Europe and the US). You can see which books I read for the challenges here.
  • I’ve managed to finish my two Christmas reads, which complemented one other very well. Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a literary memoir exploring a father-son relationship and the legacy of Argentina’s military dictatorship. It’s an interesting read, but took a little while to get going (it would probably benefit from a second reading, as the significance of earlier sections becomes clearer in the light of later ones). While not a crime novel, criminality is a key theme and the genre is frequently referenced, albeit in slightly contradictory ways. For example, the narrator comments: ‘I understood for the first time that the children of young Argentines in the 1970s were going to have to solve our parents’ pasts, like detectives, and that what we were going to find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we’d never bought’ (p.152). But then a little later it’s suggested that exploring ‘social crime […] through the artifice of a detective novel’ is inadequate, because ‘the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the conviction that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book, and that the world outside the book is guided by the same principles of justice as the tale told inside and should not be questioned’ (p.153). Of course that’s not always the case: lots of contemporary crime authors have pushed the boundaries of the genre to explore the absence of justice for state crimes. I wonder if Pron has read Ernesto Mallo’s outstanding 2006 crime novel Needle in a Haystack (see my review here), which examines the same historical period? It’s precisely the lack of a resolution/punishment for the crimes committed by the junta that gives the narrative its power.

  • My other Christmas novel was Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House (Harvill Secker 2013), the fourth in the German/Finnish Kimmo Joentaa series, which was an excellent read. Even though each installment is made up of quite similar elements, the quality of the characterisation and narrative construction is such that they never appear formulaic. The starting points in Light in a Dark House are the disappearance of Kimmo’s secretive on-off lover, and the murder of a nameless, comatose woman in a hospital. Intriguingly, the only clue left by the murderer is ‘lacrimal fluid’, or tears.
  • And the connections between the two? The legacies of past violence, unresolved traumas, and the damaging effects of silence. These issues are presented quite differently in each, which makes them an interesting pair to read together.

Looking ahead:

  • Santa was kind enough to bring me a number of crime novels, including Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (Phoenix 2007), Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes (Other Press 2005/2011) and John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (Viking 2013). I’m going to make the Sacheri my first crime novel of 2014, as I enjoyed the Oscar-winning film adaptation of 2010, and am keen to read the original novel. That’ll keep me going on my Argentinian reading path as well for now.
  • As a 2014 Petrona judge, I need to pick up the pace of my reading. Thus far I’ve read 20 of the submissions, which means I have rather a lot to go. (This is by way of a confession to Karen, Barry and Sarah, but I will get cracking now, promise…once I’ve read the Sacheri, that is).
  • More generally, 2014 is going to be different compared to other years, as I’m on research leave for a semester from the end of January *happy face*. More on my plans for that interlude another time…

Wishing you all a great start to the year and many hours of good reading!

#42 / Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places (ebook; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) 4.5 stars

Opening line: I have a meanness in me, real as an organ.

I’m working my backwards through Gillian Flynn’s works after reading the incredible Gone Girl (see review here). Dark Places is the author’s second novel, and confirms my impression that she’s one of the most talented and original voices in crime today. Her novels are not necessarily perfect, but they’re extremely well written and have a narrative energy that makes them a red-hot reading experience. In the case of Dark Places, Flynn also takes on a very difficult subject and does so in a way that is both sensitive and groundbreaking. There is an authorial bravery at work here that I very much admire.

The principal narrator of Dark Places is thirty-one year old Libby Day, who in 1985, at the age of seven, survived a night-time massacre at the family farm that left her mother Patty and sisters Michelle and Debby dead. Her brother Ben, a teenager at the time, was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life imprisonment. Twenty-four years on, Libby is living alone, and has used up most of the $300,000 fund set up in her name after the murders. Petulant about the public’s dwindling interest in her, she resembles a former child film-star who can’t comprehend why the offers have dried up. So when she gets a call from a young man called Lyle, offering her money to appear as a ‘special guest’ at his none too subtly named ‘Kill Club’, she agrees to go. There she encounters a group of obsessives who have pored over every detail of the murders, and who are convinced that Ben is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. They offer her more money to talk to others close to the case – effectively positioning her as an investigator into her own family’s murders – and she accepts, partly for the cash and partly due to her own desire for closure. Her often darkly humorous account of events in the present is interspersed with sombre flashbacks to the day of the murders, narrated from the point of view of her mother Patty and brother Ben.

One of the key strengths of this novel for me was its characterisation. Libby, the sole survivor of the massacre, is clearly not depicted as a traditional tragic victim. She is spiky, surly, obsessed with money, and appears to have alienated everyone around her. But at the same time, hers is the voice that is the most moving in the novel, because through her, Flynn vividly realises the themes of grief, trauma and loss. Patty and Ben are also brilliantly portrayed: the thirty-two-year-old single mom trying to look after four children and keep the family farm going during a recession, and the troubled teenager struggling with the transition into manhood. All three characters give a sobering insight into the long-term effects of grinding poverty. Class is a big theme and is deftly handled.

There are some graphic descriptions of violence in the novel that readers may find upsetting. However, my own feeling is that Flynn uses these descriptions to convey the reality of the massacre as a violent and traumatic event, rather than with gratuitous intent. Crucially, we are told the physical details of what happened early in the novel, thus avoiding an excessive build up of readerly curiosity or their use as part of the narrative pay-off. There were perhaps just a few small details at the end of the novel that didn’t ring entirely true to me – a dash too much rural noir – but these don’t obscure the novel’s genuine strengths. Libby and Patty’s voices have stayed with me in particular.

In terms of larger literary influences, Dark Places surely reaches back to In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s seminal 1966 account of the massacre of a farming family in Kansas (Libby tells us firmly that her farm is near Kansas City, Missouri rather than Kansas City, Kansas, which I read as a neat in-joke that both acknowledges Capote’s influence and asserts an authorial distance from him). I’m also reminded of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s novel The Murder Farm (see my review here), which is very different in style and length, but is another successful literary re-imagining of this kind of case.

By coincidence, an article by Sarah Weinman recently appeared in Book Beast entitled ‘The Original Gone Girls: Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Other Forgotten Pioneers of Crime Fiction’. It focuses on earlier contributions to the psychological thriller by women writers and is well worth checking out.

Mrs. Peabody awards Dark Places an accomplished and memorable 4.5 stars

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#31 / Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (London: Phoenix, 2012). A wickedly entertaining portrait of a marriage gone horribly wrong  4.5 stars

Opening line: When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.

I’d heard from lots of people that this off-beat American crime novel was good, but no one warned me how ridiculously fun it would be. From start to finish, Gone Girl was an absolute, wicked joy, and had me applauding its bravura characterisation and plot.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Elliott Dunne goes missing in North Carthage, Missouri, leaving the police sniffing suspiciously around husband Nick. The events up leading up to and including that day are narrated by husband and wife in alternating chapters, and provide the reader with two highly distinctive perspectives. Soon we’re having to ask ourselves a series of bracing questions: What exactly is the nature of the crime that’s been committed? Who, if anyone, is the perpetrator? Who, if anyone, is the victim? Who is trustworthy? Who is not? And trying to work out the answers makes for a hugely enjoyable and addictive read.

In addition, the novel provides us with a wonderfully dark portrait of a marriage gone sour; a meditation on the way couples act out idealised identities, and a dissection of the stories they tell to fashion reality for their own ends. This is fundamentally a novel about gender and power, and it doesn’t pull any punches (some great fodder for discussion here). There’s also a wonderfully scathing critique of the media’s relentless pursuit of a story, regardless of the truth or judicial process.

All of this might have ended up a bleak, rather depressing read, were it not for the seam of wickedly dark humour that runs throughout the book. Think Danny DeVito’s 1989 The War of the Roses, crossed with Fay Weldon’s 1984 The Life and Loves of a She Devil, with a dash of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 The Talented Mr. Ripley thrown in. And as for plotting, no one’s done a mid-narrative twist better since Sarah Walters’ 2002 The Fingersmith

20th Century Fox have acquired the property rights to the novel, with Reece Witherspoon set to produce, and David ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Fincher reportedly in talks to direct the film adaptation. It could be very, very good.

Mrs. Peabody awards Gone Girl a deliciously clever and satisfying 4.5 stars.

UPDATE 3 October 2014: The film of Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher and starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck is out now. Guardian film supremo Peter Bradshaw has given it 4 stars: read his review here.

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