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I subscribed to the print edition of Entertainment Weekly for years, and always flipped to the book reviews written by Gillian Flynn first. That’s one reason why her name was familiar to me long before the astounding success of Gone Girl. The other reason was my reaction to the two novels, SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES, she wrote before it.

As a result, I like to pretend I’m part of a special club of people who discovered Flynn before the 15 million readers who kept Gone Girl on the New York Times Bestseller List for 130 weeks. Although SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES were also bestsellers that earned critical acclaim, there weren’t a zillion people yakking about them in the years between 2006 and 2010. There were, however, millions who loved them for their gripping narratives and compellingly believable characters. These novels were also loved by a lot of writers, like me, who continuously searched for books that inspired us to aim higher in our own work.

These books hit that mark for me, for plenty of reasons. In both, I was immediately pulled into the story by a main character who spoke with a voice that commanded my attention. In SHARP OBJECTS, that character is Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter who’s sent back to her home town to cover a story about a missing girl, which forces her to reconsider what she thinks about the death of her own sister years before. In DARK PLACES, the story revolves around Libby Day, who survived the massacre that killed her mother and sisters, and is now plagued by nightmares from the past and the inability to make meaningful connections to other people or hold down a job as her life marches on.

In both cases, Flynn broke a rule that agents and editors have hit me over the head with too many times. She created lead characters who aren’t very likable people. At least not in the beginning. In the beginning they’re cynical loners. Camille is a woman who isolates herself in a job and thinks every day about her stay in a psychological hospital and the years she cut away her own skin. And Libby is so desperate for money that she’s willing to exploit her family’s tragedy to get it.

Despite these qualities, both characters were people I wanted to get to know a little better, because I had a feeling I really would come to like them. In SHARP OBJECTS my connection to Camille was forged within the first chapter. In that scene she’s talking to her editor – a guy who knows her psychologically tortured history inside-out and accepts and appreciates her perhaps even more because of it. The editor – Frank Curry – is getting ready to ask her to do something that’s especially difficult. As she’s considering it, Camille muses:

“Frank Curry thinks I’m a soft touch. Might be because I’m a woman. Might be because I’m a soft touch.”

Ten years after reading that sentence for the first time, it still captures who I think Gillian Flynn really is. In interviews she’s talked about how she wasn’t “a nice girl” growing up. She was always different from other kids. But you never get the sense that didn’t care about people. Indeed, I don’t think she could ever have created such realistic characters if she didn’t have an empathetic nature. And as shown by the brief passage above, she certainly has a sense of humor.

Still, there’s that first sentence in DARK PLACES, that’s so indelibly creepy, spoken in the voice of a narrator who’s obviously trying to push you away:

“I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.”

That’s the voice of Libby Day, who’s a desperately unhappy person who doesn’t appear to care about anyone else. But once you learn what happened to her you certainly understand why. Like SHARP OBJECTS, DARK PLACES is built around a murder mystery. Libby’s lived for decades without speaking to her brother, Ben, who was sent away to prison for killing her mother and sisters, thanks to her testimony as a “witness.” As an adult, in collaboration with an odd group of citizen investigators who don’t believe Ben is guilty, Libby is forced to once again confront the possibility that the murders are linked to Satan worshipers while dealing with memories of poverty and paternal abandonment as a child.

Despite the early chapters when Libby appears to act as unpleasant as possible, you end up rooting for her by the end of the book. In between you’re treated to a story that moves quickly, making you feel as if you’ve slipped into a nightmarish fun house, with a weird girl at your side. You’re both blind in the darkness, and feeling your way through the corridors, breathless and terrified by what might jump out at you.

You’ll experience similar sensations in SHARP OBJECTS as Camille likewise confronts a series of mysteries about her sister’s death. In the process she’s forced to spend time with the mother she never got along with and a teenage mean girls-type of stepsister. Amid many questions about two missing girls, Camille is drawn into a whirlwind of bad memories about the experiences that left her body scarred by self-mutilation. Although she really is a bit more likable than Libby from DARK PLACES, and although the dark corridors you traverse with her aren’t quite as frightening, the surprise you encounter at the final turn will deepen your appreciation for Flynn’s expertly twisted storytelling along the way.

As a writer, I was encouraged by both of these books to tap my deepest fears and essentially stop worrying about what anyone thought of me as I shared them. Which made me feel a bit more confident as I listened to reactions to my first novel, Double Abduction, which was published in 2007 and likewise incorporated sharp objects and took readers into dark places. As a reader, I know I will always count on Gillian Flynn to tell stories that are captivating enough to stay in my mind years after I’ve read them to the end.

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