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Literature / Dark Places

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The second crime novel by Gillian Flynn that deals with class issues in rural America, poverty, and the Satanic Panic that swept the United States in the 1980s.

When Libby Day was seven years old, her mother and two sisters were murdered. Her testimony convicted her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, of the killings, and in Libby's words, "Since then I've been waiting to die." But when she is contacted by a group who are convinced of Ben's innocence, Libby starts to ask questions she never dared to before. She begins to realize that everyone had something to hide that day... especially Ben. Now, twenty-four years later, the truth is going to be even harder to find.

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Who really massacred the Day family?

It was made into a 2015 film with the same name, starring Charlize Theron as Libby.

Warning: Unmarked spoilers and some of the trope headings are spoilers. Please proceed with caution.

Tropes included in Dark Places:

  • Abusive Parents: Diondra's parents leave her alone for months at a time, with just three dogs for company. Diondra is seventeen. And Diondra's father threatens to kill her if she ever has sex outside of marriage. While Runner is not physically abusive to the Days, he is a terrible person.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Runner is stumbling-drunk in about half of the scenes he appears in, and otherwise buzzed. Krissi ends up one too.
    • Although she's only 17, Diondra qualifies.
    "Diondra tended to pass out while still holding a bottle in her hand, it was her preferred way to drink, to do it til it knocked her out, that last sip nearby just in case."
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Patty's initial attraction to Runner. Needless to say, that goes downhill quickly.
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  • Alliterative Name: Krissi Cates and Debby Day. Also Diondra's pseudonym of Polly Palm.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Debby gets her arm sliced nearly clean off during the massacre. Libby has three toes and half of her ring finger amputated thanks to frostbite.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Deconstructed. Ben is hated for killing cows with Trey and Diondra, but they did so in a drugged-up haze. Diane finally loses patience with Libby after Libby kills her dog, but this is shown to be mostly accidental and provoked.
  • Bastard Girlfriend: Diondra to Ben. He doesn't even really like her due to how violent, aggressive, and cruel she is to him. Somewhat related to Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male, but Diondra is portrayed as an unpleasant although abused and mistreated person.
  • Berserk Button: Diondra goes crazy when Ben suggests she have an abortion. She kills Michelle to keep her from telling anyone.
    • Libby does not like being threatened.
  • Big Brother Instinct:
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    • Played with. Ben yells at Libby to stay away from the house to protect her from Diondra, but he does very little to stop Diondra strangling Michelle, and does nothing to stop the murders of the rest of his family, albeit there wasn't a lot he could have done against an axe-wilding hitman. Once Diondra gets arrested, he resolves to spend the remainder of his life watching out for Libby.
    • Diane towards Patty.
  • Birds of a Feather: Lyle admits to Libby the reason why he sticks with her is because when he was a kid, he accidentally started a wildfire that ruined many lives, so he understands how she must feel.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Most of the Day family is still dead and Ben lost his youth, but the book ends with Libby opening up to people again, Diondra finally getting punished for killing Michelle, and heavily implying that Ben will soon be released from prison.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Trey makes a point of not dating Indian chicks, even though he is half Indian. One of the hints about how deeply the racism of Kinnakee affects him.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter:
    • Diondra, at first glance, though it's fairly easy to see why.
    • Michelle and Krissi are a prepubescent versions.
  • Broken Bird: Libby, big time, due to her mother and sisters being murdered. She's a kleptomaniac who's never held a job and generally can barely function as an adult.
  • Butch Lesbian: A rare example in Diane, who has character outside of her appearance/sexuality.
  • Byronic Hero: Ben and Libby both have shades of this, being turbulent, troubled and intelligent. Ben's need for emotional validation and Libby's depression diminish this a bit.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Runner knew Ben had gotten Diondra pregnant, but when Libby asks him why he never told anyone, he replies, "Well, how's that my business?"
  • The Cameo: Gillian Flynn appears as a Lizzie Borden cosplayer in the film.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Plenty. Michelle's diary, Diondra's lipstick, the underwear Ben buys, Libby's kleptomania, Ben's "Polly" tattoo. And the footprint of a man's dress shoe in blood.
  • Chekhov's Gunman : Calvin Diehl, who is mentioned in passing at the Kill Club meeting as the "Angel of Debt" killer.
  • Children Are Innocent: The cause of Calvin Diehl's one and only My God, What Have I Done?. Other than that, mostly deconstructed.
  • Cool Aunt: Diane.
  • Contrived Coincidence: What are the odds of Diondra finding out that Michelle knows about her pregnancy and strangling her and Patty hiring someone to kill her, who then accidentally killed her other daughter Debby all on the same night?
  • Country Matters: Runner, although it's not clear whether he's calling his own daughter a cunt, or his ex-wife who was savagely murdered.
  • Crapsack World: Even by the standards of Flynn's other novels, Kinakee is poverty-stricken, destitute, and full of miserable, broken people.
  • The Ditz: Debby, at least according to Ben.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Diondra's father. He threatens to shoot his daughter in the head if she has sex before marriage. Diondra mentions to Ben he was in the Vietnam War by way of explanation.
  • Dying Town: Kinakee in spades.
  • Embarrassing Nickname:
    • An unusual self-inflicted version—Libby calls herself "Baby Day" when she's feeling particularly hateful.
    • Bullies at Ben's school call him "Ben Gay".
  • Fallen Princess: Krissi Cates. She goes from a cute, rich, precocious kid to a borderline-alcoholic stripper whose parents want nothing to do with her all because of the lies she told as a little girl.
  • False Rape Accusation: Krissi claimed she'd done "sex stuff" with Ben to other girls (she was 11 and he 15). It then became a Snowball Lie, with an interviewer then being brought in who questioned her along with other girls in a highly suggestive way so they'd falsely implicate him. Later she admits that it was all made up, and feels horrible about this because (though he was never prosecuted) it tarnished his reputation enough for people to believe that he'd murdered his family later.
  • Fiery Coverup: After Libby escapes Diondra and Crystal, they torch the house down and flee the scene before Libby can go to the police. It would have worked, if not for Libby's kleptomaniac tendencies.
  • Flashback B-Plot: The "present" story tells Libby's chronological attempts to figure out who murdered her family, while the "past" section chronologically retells the last day of Patty's life from her perspective and that of her apparent killer, her son Ben.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Diondra's father is an extremely violent, aggressive control freak who threatens to kill her if she ever got pregnant. It's not so surprising that she'd violently kill Michelle when Michelle discovers her pregnancy and threatens to blab, but it's not okay.
    • Lampshaded by Libby at the end about Crystal, Libby's niece and Ben and Diondra's daughter. Libby expresses sympathy for her helping to cover up her mother's crime for years.
  • Friendless Background: None of the Day children have close friends. Special mention goes to Libby and Ben, and Libby realizes this to be the case for Crystal.
  • The Gadfly: Patty notes that Runner's bizarre way of showing affection (if it could be called that) for his kids was by mildly irritating them.
  • Girls Love Stuffed Animals: Michelle and Debby seemed to—Michelle liked to pile them on her bed and pretend to have 'sleepovers' with them.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Libby notes that since the massacre, she lost the ability to control her anger, mostly as a teenager.
  • Heroic Suicide: Horrifyingly subverted. Patty intends to do this by arranging her own murder, knowing that the money will be able to provide Ben with a competent defense after he's railroaded for child abuse. However, it's interrupted by her daughter Debby, who is violently killed in front of her by the hitman.
  • Hurting Hero: Libby, in spades.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Ben is sexually active at fifteen, and it gets him into massive amounts of trouble.
  • Infallible Babble: Patty hears a rumor about Calvin Diehl being willing to kill people for insurance money. He's real, she hires him, and this is how she and her daughter Debby end up getting murdered.
  • In the Blood: Libby tells Ben, "I know a little bit about trying to do the right thing and fucking up completely." Ben comments she could have been talking about the whole family.
  • I Want to Be a Real Man: It was something of an obsession for teenaged Ben, especially given his utter lack of a father figure around and other men automatically perceiving him as weak.
  • I Was Quite the Looker: Patty, though she is still considered quite attractive and treated well because of it, she frequently comments that
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Libby has been insulted and harassed by people convinced that her testimony was the result of her having been coached by her psychologist. They're right in that Libby did not directly witness Ben killing anyone. However, we don't see them pursuing the psychologist who coached her on what to say and convinced her of Ben's guilt. We do hear Libby describe one of them screaming at her, and see another fan carrying around a photo of Libby with devil horns drawn on it.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Deconstructed all over the place. While Libby is probably the straightest example, a lot of evidence is given to show how much her manipulative and violent behavior has hurt those around her, especially her aunt Diane. Krissi and Ben both want to think of themselves this way, but Ben wonders how sincere this is on his part, and Libby refuses to forgive Krissi.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: The only person this could be said of with no doubt is Runner, who even tries to scam his grieving daughter after her whole family has been killed.
  • Kill the Poor: A rare straight example that is justified. Diehl does this as a hitman. He views it as assisted suicide to help the broken and poverty-stricken, as most insurance won't pay out in cases of suicide. This is portrayed as a mark of desperation but also as a moral code, away from the usual implications of Social Darwinism.
  • Lack of Empathy: Different flavors all around; most of the problems the characters face stem from various failures to show — or receive — empathy from one another. Special points go to Runner, Patti's neighbors (who buy the farming equipment she needs at a dirt-cheap price and slutshame her years after her death) and The Kill Club, who don't see any harm in bombarding a Sole Survivor with questions, laughing/jeering her down when she doesn't instantly accept Ben's innocence and generally treating her horribly (Magda in particular seems more interested in getting Ben out of Jail than she is in raising her own teenage son). Libby herself lacks empathy for others, but the massacre messed her up enough that it's not surprising.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Played with. Diondra is eventually arrested for killing Libby's sister years ago and attempting to kill Libby as an adult, but she went free for years. The first girl to falsely accuse Ben of sexually abusing her is estranged from her parents and lives an unenviable life as a stripper who barely makes ends meat. However, in her case it's a bit more complicated as she was a literal child when she'd made the accusations and didn't understand the gravity of what she'd done, and had been coaxed into saying she was abused by a physchologist. At the same time she continued to spout the lie well into adulthood and while her reaction to seeing Ben's mom could have been out of guilt, it's hard not to be furious at seeing her freak out and make Ben look even guiltier when you know that he didn't molest her. The man who murdered Libby's other sister is also caught and jailed.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Crystal, Ben's daughter and Libby's niece.
  • Loose Lips: If Crystal had never mentioned the name of Michelle's old middle-school crush, Libby might have never figured out that Diondra was involved in Michelle's death.
  • Loser Son of Loser Dad: Ben's greatest fear is that he'll end up like the horrible Runner. It's why he makes most of the decisions he does, to protect Diondra and Crystal.
  • Mama Bear: It's constantly teased that Patty might not be this, but by the time she arranges her own murder in order to protect her children, it's undoubted that she is one.
  • Men Are Tough / Women Are Delicate: Both subverted in a million ways. Ben believes this, but he acts on it to serve Diondra, who is violent, aggressive, and homicidal.
  • My Greatest Failure: The only action Calvin Diehl ever regrets is killing Debby.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Libby has this reaction when she finally realizes that her brother is innocent.
    • Calvin Diehl's reaction when he kills Debby, and gives Patty a messy death. Patty also has this reaction in her final moments.
    • The girls who falsely accused Ben of abusing them all have this reaction after the murders, convinced that their made up story of Satanic sexual abuse caused the murders. In a twisted way, they were right: The fact that the Day mother knew they'd need a fortune for a defense lawyer got her to hire a hitman to kill her so they could use the life insurance money for Ben's defense. He wound up killing one of the daughters who witnessed the killing, and she only saw the killing because the sound of Diondra strangling Michelle woke her up and prompted her to get her mom. Had he not been there, Diondra likely would have been stopped before she could fully strangle Michelle.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Diondra kept hers a secret from everyone except Ben.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Poor, poor Patty, and to a lesser and much darker extent, Calvin Diehl. She was going to commit Suicide by Assassin, just so she could get insurance money (although she suspected it would look like an accident. Calvin, the assassin, wanted to give her some dignity in death and found Runner (and that he was a total asshole), so he decided to make it look like a murder so that Runner would sweat for a while and get some karma. However, Debby interrupted them, Calvin killed her in a rage to hide what he'd done, and Patty died not only horribly but knowing that she'd inadvertently killed her daughter. And Ben, who Patty was trying to protect all along, ended up going to prison for their murders.
  • Nothing Nice About Sugar and Spice: Kristi is a more sympathetic version. She was an extremely cute, gossipy, peak-80s tween when she tried to seduce Ben (who was eighteen), and then falsely accused him of sexual abuse, getting him sent to prison. When Libby catches up with her, she's a stripper with a terrible breast enlargement who, while she admits to lying about Ben, still expects Libby to feel sorry for her.
  • Not Me This Time: Calvin admits to killing Debby, the only murder he was ever sorry for, but he genuinely didn't see Michelle.
  • Obviously Evil: Who would have thought that Diondra, one of the most manipulative and sociopathic characters, would have been the one to kickstart the Day family massacre and spearhead the drama in the later present day scenes?
  • Obvious Villain, Secret Villain: Diondra is the former due to the traits listed under Obviously Evil. However, it is a surprise that Calvin Diehl, a character who had until then been described as a myth, was actually real and had been recruited by Patty (although with the best of intentions) to kill her on that very same night as an insurance scam.
  • Parental Neglect:
    • Runner. He mostly shows up to beg money from Patty and alternate between belittling his kids and playing it off as a joke, but otherwise he's never around.
    • Patty isn't as bad as Runner, but her family's poverty has left her so exhausted and depressed that she often finds it impossible to attend to her children: feed them properly, drive them to school, clean the house. Once she made Ben bike in the winter to his school because she didn't have the energy to get them there. Libby notes that she did at least try her best.
    • Diondra's parents leave her alone for months at a time totally unsupervised.
  • Parents as People: Patty. She loves her children, but she finds it very hard to deal with Ben's strange behavior and three daughters while trying to keep her parent's farm afloat.
  • Plastic Bitch: When Libby catches up with Kristy, she's a Single Mom Stripper and Jaded Washout but still expects Libby to feel sorry for her after she falsely accused Libby's brother Ben of rape (although, in fairness, she was also manipulated by corrupt police). She also has an extremely crooked boob job that she was convinced into getting by her "manager"/pimp.
  • Red Herring: Scattered in. Len's dress shoes get their own special mention, a clue that perhaps he's the killer. Each of the three types of murder weapons are used on the cows during Ben's sacrifice, indicating it might have been all three (in fact, none of those weapons were used then, and only one of them is a killer.)
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Diondra, and her younger cousins are the same way.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: The people convinced of Ben's innocence are right, but a big part of it for the women is that they're attracted to him, and they're downright rude about it as well, blaming Libby for having been manipulated as a child.
  • Ripped from the Headlines:
    • It's clear that the author took inspiration from the infamous McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial, which one character even brings up in the book. The real-life event was caused by an emotionally unstable mother becoming convinced that her child had been abused at the preschool. The person they hired to interview the children went in convinced of the McMartin family's guilt and coached the children to say that they had been abused. Very early on people convinced of Ben's innocence try to convince Libby that this is what happened to her. They're right, and we also find out that right before the murders a younger girl Ben had kissed wound up lying about having been abused. Just like in the McMartin case, she and several other girls had been interviewed by someone convinced of Ben's guilt who had coached them on what to say.
    • Ben's fan club is clearly based on the fandoms that real life criminals have amassed. Ted Bundy had numerous women write to him and propose to him while he was in jail (he even married one). In this case they were rightfully convinced of his innocence.
    • The book simultaneously criticizes obsessive True Crime fanatics who harass victims and fetishize cases, whilst also acknowledging that some more responsible True Crime fans have been responsible for bringing attention to badly mishandled cases in Lyle's character.
  • The Runt at the End: Libby, both as a child and an adult.
    "I'm barely five foot—four foot, ten inches in truth, but I round up. Sue me. I'm thirty-one, but people tend to talk to me in sing-song, like they want to give me fingerpaints."
  • Satanic Panic: Set in the 1980s and deals with the Satanic Panic as the central topic. The protagonist's brother, Ben, is accused of ritual sexual abuse culminating in the murder of his whole family sans protagonist Libby, none of which he did.
  • The Scapegoat: Ben, as it turns out, but he allowed it to protect Diondra and Crystal, his daughter.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Patty's death. She needs to be free of the farm, to pay off the debt, and to get Ben a lawyer so he can fight the (false) child molestation charges Kristi has brought against him. So she hires someone to kill her, because Diane will be able to take the kids. Except that Debbie interrupts Patty's suicide/murder (by Calvin Diehl), and Patty is accidentally Forced to Watch as Calvin hacks apart her young daughter. So Patty dies horribly for nothing, knowing it was for nothing, and even worse, Ben was also arrested and sent to prison for decades for her murder as well as child abuse.
  • Single Mom Stripper: Krissi is a huge deconstruction of the usual whimsicalness of this trope, being hard-bitten, neglectful, and washed up.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Ben and Diondra, but taken to its logical extreme in that Diondra is straight up abusive and cruel to Ben most of the time.
  • Snooping Little Kid: Michelle. And it gets her killed.
  • So Proud of You: Diane's reaction after Libby finally uncovers the truth.
  • Sole Survivor: Poor Libby.
  • Sticky Fingers: Libby steals little things from each house she goes to. And this proves very important in the climax so she can match Diondra's DNA to the blood on Michelle's mattress.
  • Stopped Caring: Libby has elements of this at the beginning of the novel, living off money she made selling her story as a kid and she occasionally contemplates suicide when feeling particularly low. She slowly gets out of this, with some help from Lyle.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Everybody tells Libby she resembles Patty, even with her hair dyed blonde.
  • Struggling Single Mother: Patty, taken Up to Eleven.
  • Suicide by Assassin: The Angel of Debt is theorized to be this, killing off people who are so snowed in by debt so their families can collect the insurance money. He's real, and this is how Patty - and, accidentally, Debby, died. This is notably the only death that Calvin Diehl, the "angel", feels sorry about.
  • Survivor Guilt: Libby—she calls herself 'a coward' for running when she heard her mother and her sisters screaming. Note that she was only seven years old.
  • Tagalong Kid: How Trey treated Ben during the flashbacks.
  • This Is Unforgivable!:
    • Diane finally kicked Libby out after Libby killed Diane's dog (albeit she was provoked and it was mostly accidental).
    • This is how Krissi Cates' parents responded when Krissi admitted she lied about Ben molesting her.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Not so much in looks, but Diane is the outspoken, take-action sister compared to Patty.
  • Took a Level in Kindness:
    • Libby grows throughout the book. Becoming more proactive, she also becomes more inclined to do kind things, in her own way. Like ensuring that Krissi leaves with the lotion bottles Krissi stole from her, knowing the emotional validation was necessary to her.
    • Trey, once he grows up and gets out of Kinnakee. He played no role in the murders, and goes on to run a successful, honest business.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Diondra only avoided murder charges at first because the town was so convinced of Ben's guilt that the prosecution ignored a lot of evidence pointing to his innocence, and the fact that Ben himself wanted to take the fall for her. Once Libby recants her testimony and points the police in her direction with some DNA, she's almost immediately arrested.
  • Tragic Villain: Krissi. She lies about Ben molesting her and in doing so condemns him to prison, but it's clear that she is utterly destroyed by her poor choices (which also end up wrecking her family).
  • Trashy Trailer Home: Subverted. Libby expects to not like her Aunt Diane's trailer because she's used to living in the Day house. However, because Patty was totally broke while Diane, while poor, is not overburdened by debt, she learns that living in the trailer can actually be more pleasant than her farmhouse.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: This trope is written into the structure of the story itself. The book is split between the perspective of Libby Day as an adult in the modern day, and the day of the murders from the point of view of various people.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour:
    • All over the place. Fifteen-year-old Ben drinks, is sexually active, smokes dope and kills a cow because he wanted to impress Trey and Diondra, Michelle spies on people so she can blackmail them, and Krissi Cates kisses a boy much older than she is, then makes up all the "sex stuff" they did to impress her friends. The only 'normal' child in the novel seems to have been Debby.
    • Libby apparently started out fairly normal, but after seeing her family killed at the ripe old age of seven, she became violently angry and depressed. The reason her aunt kicked her out of her home was because Libby killed Diane's dog, and this was after Libby had already totaled Diane's car, stolen her credit cards, and broken Diane's nose multiple times.
  • Two Dun It: There are two killers working separately in a single night. One is Calvin Diehl, "the Angel of Debt", who Patty hired to kill her, and ended up killing Debby accidentally. The other killer is Diondra, working completely separately, who kills Michelle because Michelle learned about her pregnancy.
  • The Unreveal: It's never revealed what happened to Lisette Stephens, with the implication that her killer won't ever be found.
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: Diondra is a huge deconstruction. She often acts extremely to protect herself and, to a lesser extent, Ben, even goading him along in killing Michelle, claiming that she is doing this. However, she's also shown to be very cruel, selfish, and bullying to Ben.
  • Wham Line: A few:
    • '"I'm here" said the Day Girl.'.
    • "Shhh, the baby's kicking."
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Diondra outright strangles Michelle and she likely would have killed Libby if Ben had agreed to bring her back.
    • Calvin Diehl kills Debby, but he certainly didn't want to and views this as crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Runner insists, rather randomly, "I don't kill girls. I wouldn't kill a little girl."
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Runner tells Libby he has cirrhosis of the liver. With his drinking habits, it's not much of a surprise.

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