Twenty-five years ago, a poor farming family in Florida was massacred, the only survivors being two of the children, Ben, the eldest, and Libby, the youngest. Libby was taken in by her aunt who lived in a nearby trailer park, but was so delinquent over the ensuing years that the woman finally threw her out when Libby killed the family dog (by accident, apparently). Now in her early 30s, Libby has lived with a succession of foster families before ending up in a grotty apartment. She’s never worked and drifted through life, still traumatised by the past, surviving on donations from the public and the royalties of a ghost-written “autobiography” of the killings. She’s so un-knowing that she does not realise she has to change the sheets on her bed occasionally, although she does own, and drive, a car. As the novel opens, the helpless and (in her own words) unpleasant Libby is told that her money has run out.
Simultaneous with this news, she receives a letter offering her money to come and talk to a group about the massacre, a prospect that seems better to her than getting a job. Libby’s brother Ben, who was 15 at the time of the deaths, was tried and convicted of the murders. It turns out that this group consists of a medley of obsessives who have pored over the case rather like detectives, and come up with a range of theories for who was really responsible – none of them Ben. Partly in a desire to “earn” some money, and partly as a reawakened need to remember the events and find out what really happened, Libby agrees to see her brother in prison and keep the group informed as to what she finds out. She also finally begins to go through the boxes of possessions from her childhood, ostensibly to sell as souvenirs, but in fact an action that triggers old memories and uncovers some contradictions.
The novel is told in alternating chapters: one set a flashback to the long day of the murders, and the other Libby’s present-day perspective of what happened then and how she feels about meeting her relatives and old associates of the family again, after so many years of isolation. In the flashback chapters, we learn of the extreme poverty in which Patty, the children’s mother lived. Patty had inherited the family farm after her parents died, her sister Diane not being interested and leaving home as soon as she was old enough. At first, things went well but soon Patty found herself with immense debts acquired while farming was a reasonable business but, by the slump of the mid-1980s, no way to pay them off. At the same time, she’d married Runner, a dropout loser, who had left her after fathering four children, Ben and three younger girls. During the flashback sequences, we discover (too) much about the 15-year-old Ben’s sexual awakening, excessive details about his less than salubrious activities with some deviant older companions, and about his alienation from his family – all providing a plethora of alternative suspects.
Dark Places, like its predecessor Sharp Objects, is a full-blown Southern melodrama in which restraint does not figure. Characters are at the mercy of their considerable emotional drives, often combined with low intellect, and are constantly scrabbling around to escape from the poverty trap by any means possible. It’s hard to sympathise with any of them, apart from Patty, whose struggles to keep the farm going and do the best by her children make her the only principled character in the novel. The fact that I found the characters unlikeable and non-admirable (education and self-reliance don’t feature much if at all), in addition to the seemingly endless details about bodily functions and unhygienic actions, did not help me to engage with this novel. It isn’t a bad book by any means, but in terms of a crime plot it certainly stretches credibility in too many ways (and breaks at least one genre “rule”) as Libby finds out what really went on that night in 1985 and why those still alive behaved as they did in the subsequent years.