Dark Places predates Gone Girl, and I think is a stronger book. I liked Gone Girl well enough, but this one is darker, harsher, and has more interesting things to say. This is not a book to embark upon if you want characters you like. Very few of the people who occupy these pages are pleasant to be around. And yet, that seems to be the point. Justice shouldn't only belong to the pleasant, and incarceration shouldn't be punishment for being disturbing.
Is it too much of a spoiler to say that this book seems like it draws heavily on what happened to the West Memphis Three? Don't take it as such. Flynn does a nice job of creating doubt about the guilt or innocence of the man who has been serving a life sentence for the horrific murders of his family. But at the same time, she deftly shows how pieces of the case against him were, really, much more incidental than they were made to appear at trial, and how what could be just the actions of a fairly messed-up teen were used to make him out to be a psychopath.
I'd like to draw attention to how exactly she does this, because I think it's quite brilliant. The book leaps around in time, between Libby, the sister who was the only one who survived the massacre of her family and testified against her brother, and the day leading up to the murders. It isn't that Flynn later reframes things in such a way that lets her readers smack their heads with dismay. No, she gives us the background first, and then we get to watch in horror as these pieces of information we already possess are seized upon by other characters of proof of what Ben was accused of doing. It gives the book the sickening sense of a train wreck in slow motion.
At the same time, the suspicion is there that even though those pieces of evidence don't point to what the prosecution says they point to, Ben might still be guilty. The evidence could be bullshit, and he could still have done it. There are serious reasons to believe it. And I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell you which way it turns out.
Libby, the main character, is for the most part thoroughly unlikeable. Unlikeable even beyond "screwed up because she was there while her family was murdered" screwed up. She lies, she steals, and finds it difficult to do any of the daily tasks that make up life. Now in her thirties, the trust fund provided by sympathetic strangers has been tapped out, and she's broke and angry because other survivors of tragedy are getting the money and attention.
Desperate to meet her rent for the next month, she gets involved with murder conspiracy theorists, a group obsessed with the murder of her family, and in return for cash, agrees to look into what happened that night, even though she's quite convinced that Ben did it. This leads her down twisty roads and the hangouts of the desperately poor.
I'm trying to figure out why I liked Dark Places more than Gone Girl. Maybe because it's because of the focus on crime in the lives of the poor. In the family that was killed, the mother wasn't a great mother, the kids weren't great kids, they were likely known in town as the troublemakers, and certainly as the kids most likely to bring lice to class. Because of this, when bad things start to happen, there is very little recourse, and any number of people willing to think the worst of the situation. It's that refusal to make the characters more lovable, better off, more tolerable, even, that strikes me so much.
I didn't like these characters very much, but by the end, I did care what happened to them. Very subtly, Flynn argues that they do not deserve to have been let down by the justice system because they didn't have the resources to use it to their benefit. And as we know all too well about wrongful convictions these days, they do happen. The mystery is excellently done, and doubt was ever-present.