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I. Ecopoétique et ruralité

Gillian Flynn’s Small Town Crime Fiction

Antoine Dechêne

Résumés

Cet article s'intéresse à l’intense « sens du lieu » (sense of place) présent dans les romans policiers de Gillian Flynn et qui se manifeste par la localisation dans de petites villes. En distinguant précisément les notions de cadre et de paysage, les analyses de Sharp Objects, Dark Places et Gone Girl révèlent des récits plus réalistes et sociaux, qui mêlent des atmosphères et des personnages mélancoliques à des univers narratifs complexes aux accents métaphysiques. Cet article soutient l’idée que les romans policiers de Flynn possèdent une importante dimension sociale qui rappelle celle du hard-boiled. Ses romans proposent en effet de nouvelles voies pour une forme de roman noir rural dans lequel il n'y a pas de détectives durs à cuire ni de grands méchants, mais plutôt des hommes et des femmes ordinaires qui luttent contre leurs propres déterminismes épistémologiques et ontologiques.

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  • 1 Edward Relph defines « sense of place » as a form of « environmental connection » that is both « ex (...)

1This paper addresses the profound sense of place1 in Gillian Flynn’s crime fiction, epitomized by the locale of the small town. Flynn is the author of three gripping novels, which in different but related ways form a sort of trilogy principally set in the southern Midwest of the United States, a region portrayed as desolated and alienating. While Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl (2012) is the best-known of the three, largely thanks to the successful film adaptation starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, her two previous books, Dark Places (2009) and Sharp Objects (2006) also deserve full critical attention, notably because of their Midwestern rural settings.

  • 2 Interview, « Gillian Flynn Talks about Dark Places », YouTube [Online], Orion Publishing Group, pub (...)
  • 3 Interview, « Gillian Flynn on Gone Girl and the Best Setting for a Mystery », YouTube [Online], Ori (...)
  • 4 For Kim Toft Hansen and Valentina Re, liminality is narratively significant because « placing stori (...)

2Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Flynn believes that the region encompassing Kansas and Missouri, located « right in the center of the United States [is] an underused, underknown kind of place » in crime fiction2. Flynn has also explained her fascination for small towns in several interviews, which she conceives as a potential « boiling pot of badness »3. It thus seemed natural to her to set her crime and mystery narratives in isolated towns situated on the border between those two states, a liminal space4 which offers stimulating possibilities to investigate the dynamic at work in the representations of American small towns, oscillating between an idealized cozy image and a more brutal reality.

  • 5 Andrew Pepper, « The ‘Hard-Boiled’ Genre », A Companion to Crime Fiction, Charles J. Rzepka & Lee H (...)

3In this perspective, this paper first works to define what a small town actually is in the North American context, so as to better grasp how this particular space affects crime narratives. Distinguishing between setting and landscape, the analyses reveal a tendency in the genre towards more realistic and social narratives, which blend melancholic atmospheres and characters into complex storyworlds infused with metaphysical overtones. The article’s overall claim is that Flynn’s crime fiction has an important social dimension reminiscent of the hard-boiled—understood as a predominantly American form which has worked as a « response to the particular social, economic, and political conditions in the United States from the 1920s onwards »5. Her novels indeed explore new avenues of a form of rural hard-boiled, in which there are no tough guys or super villains, but rather ordinary men and women who struggle to make ends meet and to establish a firm sense of their place in the world. To support such a reading, this paper builds on close readings of Flynn’s three novels which set up the small town as a paradigm of « guilty space » made of deceptive appearances, dark secrecy, and sheer loneliness. The study shows, finally, that Flynn’s detective mysteries mostly reside in the « unknowability » of people. Indeed, people commit crimes, even in the middle of nowhere.

The Small Town in the Cultural Imagination

  • 6 Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 48
  • 7 Trude Gjernes et Per Måseide, « Maintaining Ordinariness in Dementia Care », Sociology of Health & (...)
  • 8 Thomas Halper et Douglas Muzzio, « It’s a Wonderful Life: Representations of the Small Town in Amer (...)

4The small town is perhaps one of the most emblematic and allegorical places in North American fiction. Generally speaking, small towns cover a broad spectrum of communities, ranging from rural towns to affluent suburbs, with populations ranging from 2,000 to about 20,000. The imaginary surrounding small towns in the US has often created a sort of idealized utopia celebrating ordinariness, the ordinary being « what people take for granted about the behavior that is going on around them »6. To enact ordinariness thus means to follow cultural or situational rules, and thus to behave in socially acceptable or appropriate manner, regardless of the social role one occupies7. Thomas Halper and Douglas Muzzio explain, for instance, that in the 1980s and 1990s, the small town has come to symbolize a more authentic way of life, deprived of all the artifice and cynicism increasingly associated with big cities. The two critics also argue that the small town is believed to foster a more socially cohesive and thus meaningful life, in contrast to the atomization of experience in metropolises8.

  • 9 One may think, for instance, of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) or Jim Thompson’s The Killer I (...)
  • 10 David Geherin, Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction, Jefferson, McFarland, 2014, p. 1.
  • 11 David Geherin, op. cit., p. 6.
  • 12 Heather Worthington, Key Concepts in Crime Fiction, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, p. 30.
  • 13 David Schmid, « From the Locked Room to the Globe: Space in Crime Fiction », in Cross-Cultural Conn (...)
  • 14 Bill Phillips, « Crime Fiction and the City », IAFOR Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 2, 2, 2017, (...)

5While the setting of the small town is not exactly new to the crime genre9, there certainly is a renewed enthusiasm for rural scenery in recent crime novels, films, and TV series. David Geherin confirms this phenomenon which he believes is symptomatic of a more « realistic » trend in American crime fiction10. Indeed, he continues, « hard-boiled fiction doesn’t require an urban setting »11, nor does crime only exists in metropolises. If it remains true that crime itself has often been apprehended as « a consequence of urbanization and the concomitant proximity of rich and poor within the confines of urban spaces »12 and thus the space of the city is the « privileged locale for crime fiction »13, one cannot help but notice that the genre has gone well beyond the urban locations first assigned by Edgar Allan Poe in « The Man of the Crowd » (1840) and the Dupin trilogy. So if one might say that today « there are, no doubt, thickets of fictional detectives gumshoeing the streets of every city on Earth »14, it seems equally true that every region on the planet—no matter how remote—has become the possible scene of a crime and thus a space of investigation for the detective.

6Many writers, like Flynn, have reflected on the attraction of setting their narratives in a small town. Several of them even recently published on CrimeReads about the potentialities of locating detective series in such places. The Irish writer of nerve-wracking thrillers, Olivia Kiernan, for instance, explains that:

  • 15 Olivia Kiernan, « Small Town Crime: A World of Possibilities », CrimeReads [Online], published on 4 (...)

For the writer, there is nothing more attractive than setting a mystery in a small town. Whether it’s a character called back to their hometown to re-discover all the reasons they left in the first place or a newcomer who at first doesn’t understand the town rules but soon gets sucked into some dark mystery, there are many reasons for choosing a tight-knit community as a setting to our dastardly plots. For the reader, you get to enjoy a variety of settings: a frozen Swedish forest or the sweeping, dry heat of the outback. Small towns have plenty of murderous secrets, within the pages of crime fiction if nowhere else.15

7Similarly, Flynn’s small towns, have lost their innocence and peacefulness. The sense of community is replaced by secrecy and voyeurism. Because everybody knows everybody, the small town is a tough place for the social outcast as well as for the newcomer.

  • 16 Interview, « Gillian Flynn on Gone Girl and the Best Setting for a Mystery », op. cit.

8Flynn’s novels perfectly fit this pattern. In her own words, it is difficult to reinvent oneself, to change, and/or to leave a small town16. A place where appearances are cunningly constructed, the small town then creates discomfort as everybody turns out to be a suspect. People are not looking out for each other anymore; they are looking at each other, spying and conspiring for their own selfish ends. In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker is forced to go back to her despised hometown while Amy Dunne, in Gone Girl, is the source of a dark mystery after moving to her husband’s burg. Lastly, Libby Day, in Dark Places, is never able to leave the eponymous dismal locale she is from. Thus the small town incarnates something sinister for Flynn, a place of almost inextricable unhappiness, loneliness, and mental alienation. Flynn’s amateur sleuths search their hometowns for answers, and in doing so expose the influence that the landscape of the rural locale has on crime. Landscape is thus an important trope of Flynn’s novels which deserves further critical attention.

Setting, Landscape, and « The Great Guilty Assumption »

  • 17 Martin Lefebvre, « Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema », in Landscape and Film, Martin Lef (...)
  • 18 Les Roberts, « Landscapes in the Frame: Exploring Hinterlands of the British Procedural Drama », Ne (...)
  • 19 Isadora García Avis, « Adapting Landscape and Place in Transcultural Remakes: The Case of Bron/Broe (...)

9Les Roberts, following Martin Lefebvre’s original distinction, conceives setting as a passive backdrop for the plot while landscape provides a far more dynamic and profound sense of place, including the narrative’s atmosphere, the characters’ moods, and the overall aesthetic experience. Landscape, then, can at times refer to « the pictorial representation of a space and at other times to the real perception of a space » whereas setting is simply « the place where the action or events occur »17. In other words, setting is a « ‘given space’ to expressively complement the performative action of the human characters in the drama that unfolds. Landscape, in short, is afforded the role of ‘character’ »18. Isadora García Avis summarizes Lefebvre’s typology in the following terms: « it could be stated that landscape and setting are two different spatial forms that represent a given place in a way that is more abstract or concrete, respectively, but always within an interpretive frame informed by their contextual implications »19. Landscape thus comprises both the image of a space and the emotions attached to it. It is both a physical and mental representation of space which may determine the overall atmosphere of a narrative.

  • 20 One may also argue that both the British and the Scandinavian examples were first influenced by the (...)
  • 21 Raphaël Baroni, « Intrigues et personnages des séries évolutives : quand l’improvisation devient un (...)

10Many good examples of crime fictions set in small towns can be found on television, adding a transmedial dimension to the analysis of Flynn’s novels, themselves also adapted to the big and small screen. A significant example is True Detective (season 1, 2014) in which the depressive and existentialist police detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) epitomizes the pessimism, helplessness, and cynicism of his time and place: post-Katrina Louisiana. Other instances may include the anthology crime series Fargo (2014-2020) and The Sinner (2017-) in the US and, of course, several British series inspired by Scandinavian productions such as Broadchurch (2013-2017), Happy Valley (2014-2016), Southcliffe (2013), and Hinterland (2013-2016)20. Although these series (and the seasons within the anthologies) are not set in the same regions, they certainly have many things in common in their treatment of space, characters, and overall atmosphere. Reflecting a broader trend in recent crime fiction worldwide, these series aspire to more realistic or « natural » plots and characters21. Accordingly, those narratives often dwell upon the detectives’ existential doubts and troubled identities, the complexity of the human psyche, the lack of clear borders between good and evil, and the multiple ways of apprehending reality and time. The settings then have mysterious, haunting, nearly metaphysical overtones which reflect the characters’ troubled minds and disturb the investigations at hand.

  • 22 For Agger and Waade, melancholy is a key concept which, related to that of atmosphere in Nordic Noi (...)
  • 23 Stijn Reijnders, Places of the Imagination Media, Tourism, Culture, Surrey, Ashgate, 2011, p. 34- (...)
  • 24 Stijn Reijnders, op. cit., p. 34.
  • 25 Les Roberts, op. cit., p. 16.

11In the same way, the landscape can be given human feelings, especially negative ones. It can be melancholic, as Gunhild Agger and Anne Marit Waade have demonstrated22 or it can be at fault as Steijn Reijnders’s engaging concept of « guilty landscape » has shown23. Reijnders explains that, like human characters, landscapes can play an active role in the way human beings experience reality and, like people, they can harbor guilt. However, not all landscapes have the same impact on the mind. As he concludes, landscapes associated with negative or traumatic experiences are particularly powerful: « Some landscapes or spaces appear to be more ‘active’ than others. The power of a landscape clearly rises to the surface when events occur which generate negative associations »24. In that sense, the landscapes and especially the isolated small towns of Flynn’s novels can be regarded if not as « suspects »25, at least as factors which explain the characters’ behaviors and the criminals’ misdeeds. Taking one more step, one could even consider Flynn’s small towns as “guilty spaces” which are, in a very Southern Gothic manner – full of haunted houses and dark forests – casting a shadow of evil over their inhabitants.

  • 26 Cyndi Banks, Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed., Los Angeles, Sage, 2013, p. 62.
  • 27 David Geherin, op. cit., p. 8.

12Reijnders’s concept also has legal connotations and can be related to the idea of « The Great Guilty Place Assumption » which is one among other explanations given to justify what has been called « noble cause corruption » within the police force. Simply put, the assumption consists in stating that « police are suspicious and tend to operate in selective environments » and therefore they may « see dangers where others might see none »26. Of course, this is a classic device of crime fiction: detectives are somehow always more likely to discover clues and uncover people’s intentions and motives than regular people. This is particularly the case in small town crime narratives since, as Geherin rightly notes, « The crime solvers in these books are also products of their environment »27 and are thus supposed to have an intimate knowledge of their fellow men and women.

13Along these lines, Flynn’s crime narratives defy expectations by subverting the naive image associated with small towns as safe and welcoming spaces where individualities blend nicely into a friendly, and often wealthy community. Flynn’s small towns present a far more disquieting reality. In her world, individualities strikingly stand out. Most of her protagonists are outcasts who struggle to make ends meet. They fail to live up to the expectations of their families and communities, whether that means not being exceptional or not being ordinary enough. Taking a closer look at Flynn’s novels reveals how the small town can be apprehended as a space of ambivalence where nothing is really what it seems.

14Her landscapes have a highly visual, even cinematographic quality. As already mentioned, all three of her novels have been adapted either as films or TV series, which is not surprising in itself since Flynn has been a television critic for many years at Entertainment Weekly and is now a screenwriter and executive producer. She notably wrote the adaptations for the movie Gone Girl (with David Fincher) and the HBO TV miniseries based on her first novel Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams. Dark Places was also adapted into a movie starring Charlize Theron in 2015. She made sure that those adaptations would maintain her contrasted vision of American small towns as distressing and deceitful, especially when compared with bigger cities.

Subverting Expectations

  • 28 As Kiernan also pointed out, the return to the hometown is a leitmotif in many contemporary crime n (...)

15Flynn’s first novel establishes a sharp contrast between big urban centers and small towns. In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker, a young journalist at the Daily Post in Chicago with a psychiatric history, is sent back to her hometown28, Wind Gap in south Missouri, to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. The body is quickly discovered at the heart of the town, in an alley behind the police station. This is not the first time that the place has been struck by tragedy: the previous summer, another girl had been murdered, which leads a lot of people to think that Wind Gap girls are the target of a serial killer.

16Depressed and alcoholic, Camille has no interest whatsoever in covering the event, nor is she looking forward to getting back « home » after eight years away. She dreads the family reunion with her neurotic mother, her dull stepdad, and her much younger stepsister Amma. The family, moreover, also suffered the loss of a daughter, Marian, many years ago, and has never really been able to recover from it. Camille eventually managed to go to college, which gave her a chance to escape her hometown and the weight she was carrying on her shoulders.

17Here, Chicago appears as a safe place of emancipation and possible renewal (no matter how precarious), whereas the small town is depicted as a trap which swallows those who are not brave or smart enough to run away. So when Camille is questioned about Wind Gap before being assigned to report from there, she cannot help but portray it in gruesome terms:

  • 29 Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, New York, Broadway Books, 2006, p. 3.

It’s at the very bottom of Missouri, in the boot heel. Spitting distance from Tennessee and Arkansas […]. It’s been around since before the Civil War […]. It’s near the Mississippi, so it was a port city at one point. Now its biggest business is hog butchering. About two thousand people live there. Old money and trash29.

  • 30 Ibid.
  • 31 According to Julia Kristeva, the abject appears as the most extreme form of existential and intelle (...)

18When asked to which category she belongs, Camille answers ironically, with a smile: « I’m trash. From old money »30. The self-deprecation points to the protagonist’s lack of confidence and conflicted feelings towards a place which shaped her in its own image. Indeed, this initial depiction of Wind Gap already presents several motifs that say a lot about small towns as isolated and alienating spaces where mankind’s meanness and abjection31 horrifyingly stand out. Wind Gap’s very name implies an empty hole at the « bottom » of a forsaken region, a liminal space sandwiched between two other states which may have had a bright history but are now left in the shadows.

19Similarly, Gone Girl explores the apparent dichotomy between American metropolises and small towns. The story takes place between New York and North Carthage, a rural town in southwest Missouri. The book underlines this opposition by alternating between chapters set in the past and the present, from Amy’s and Nick’s perspectives. When she first meets her future husband, Amy Elliott (not yet Dunne), the eponymous « gone girl » is big city dweller, a New Yorker, born and raised. She is also Amazing Amy, the fictional character of her parents’ popular children’s books, whose idealized traits she can, frustratingly, never live up to. After losing his job, Nick decides that it is time for them to move from their house in Manhattan to his hometown in Missouri. Amy suffers terribly from the relocation. She eventually snaps when she discovers that Nick (whom she’s followed and supported) is now having an affair, which leads to her revenge plan, involving her own disappearance.

20Here again, Flynn portrays the small town as oppressive and depressing, at least from Amy’s perspective, although Nick himself does not seem to be a happy man during the first months of his new life. With Gone Girl, Flynn not only manages to introduce a terrifying thriller element into a marriage story, she also turns the deceptively welcoming space of the small town into a crime scene. The image of the family and community in general is constantly undermined through Amy’s suspicious gaze and miscomprehension.

  • 32 Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, New York, Broadway Books, 2012, p. 13-14.

21What is more, her journal—although one of the tools used to foment her revenge—is full of sarcastic, if not condescending comments about Missourians. She writes, for example, that when she first met Nick, she could not repress a laugh when he told her that he was from « Missoura […], a magical place » while she, the « bratty, bratty New York girl […] had never ventured to those big unwieldy middle states […] Where Many Other People Live »32.

  • 33 Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, op. cit., p. 118.

22While pretending that she is making fun of her own ignorance, Amy’s comment implies that she had never thought of those « People » as actual fellow human beings: people not as different from her as she would like them to be. Because Amy narrates half of the story, the contrast between the Midwestern people and herself never really weakens. She even imagines her character as the « Margaret Mead of the goddamn Mississippi »33: a distant and implicitly superior being whose metropolitan gaze enables her to anthropologically dissect her new environment.

23The irony of Amy’s approach lies, of course, in the fact that it is she, the witty and glamorous New Yorker, who brings psychosis and crime into the small town, revealing in passing that she naively believes in stereotypes which uphold the image of the small town as a safe and blithe place. In reality, if it were not for her, there would be no crime at all. Her misdeeds thus seem to result from her frustration with what she has become for Nick. As time passes and Nick increasingly withdraws from the couple, Amy’s annoyance turns into a well-concealed rage. In the end, what Amy cannot stand is that she has become a middle-class housewife, a social status which she conceives as poverty-stricken and purposeless. Although Amy is never destitute, properly speaking, she still associates rural life with a long uphill struggle to escape misery — a hardship which Flynn already explored in her two previous novels.

Rural Hardship

  • 34 Thomas Halper et Douglas Muzzio, op. cit., p. 19.

24If Amy still holds a somewhat old-fashioned and bland perspective on her new home, Flynn’s other novels have replaced the decayed nostalgia associated with small towns with a more realistic portrayal, which reveals that « [i]f the small town of the imagination retains some of its venerable appeal, however, real small towns have long had a case of the dwindles »34. This is mainly due to the lack of socioeconomic opportunities offered by small towns in comparison with metropolitan areas. One can feel this scarceness in Sharp Objects, for instance, when Camille, after a two-day drive through the American Midwest, finally arrives in town:

  • 35 Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, op. cit., p. 7.

For no good reason, I held my breath as I passed the sign welcoming me to Wind Gap, the way kids do when they drive past cemeteries. It had been eight years since I’d been back, but the scenery was visceral. […] I decided to head directly to the police station. It squatted at one end of Main Street, which is, true to its word, Wind Gap’s main street. […] In a few years you may find a Starbucks, which will bring the town what it yearns for: prepackaged, preapproved mainstream hipness. […] Main street was empty. No cars, no people35.

  • 36 In fact, a study published in Forbes magazine talks of a « retail Armageddon » hitting small towns (...)

25Although the town happens to be deserted because most of its inhabitants are searching the surrounding woods for the missing girl, the depiction of its sad Main Street waiting for a Starbucks to open, offers a rather bitter comment on the socioeconomic status of small towns. In fact, Sharp Objects deconstructs the occidental idea of the welfare state characterized by the monopoly of big companies. Some of Wind Gap’s inhabitants still believe that someday franchised retail stores and fast-food restaurants will help the town to achieve prosperity. Flynn’s novel, however, reveals that such a belief is deceptive and that nothing can save Wind Gap’s economic downfall36. Chicago stands for emancipation and relative freedom in the novel while Wind Gap incarnates decay, a place where crime happens simply, at times, because there is nothing else to do.

  • 37 Heather Worthington, op. cit., p. 31.

26Main Street is symbolic of many small towns. It is their social and economic life’s blood. This is why discovering the body on Main Street, right behind the police station, the emblem of law and order, makes it worse. It recalls the mean streets of larger cities which have seen Starbucks opening and closing for decades, its workforce gradually miring into poverty. In fact, the Starbucks appear as potential life-enhancing hallmarks which, in practice, may have an opposite effect: reminding one that economic growth goes hand in hand with urban expansion, which is historically connected to a rise in criminality, « the increase in crime and the growth of the city hav[ing] always been inextricably linked »37.

27The landscape of Kinnakee, Kansas, however, looks as though it is still far from having their own Starbucks. Dark Places portrays an even more sinister and traumatic image of the small town than Sharp Objects, that of an inescapable hell engendered by poverty. In the novel, the first guilty party appears to be the Days’ socioeconomic background. Indeed, the family’s murder is the tragic consequence of an equally tragic plan elaborated by the mother, who has been struggling to maintain life on the farm since her worthless husband left. In this context, it is the exhaustion of living in extreme poverty and loneliness which pushes the matriarch to hire a stranger to murder her (the only way out), so that her children can get the money from her life insurance.

  • 38 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, New York, Broadway Books, 2009, p. 3.

28The events occur on the night of January 2nd 1985 when the Day family is slaughtered on their farm. The only survivors are Libby Day, seven, and her teenage brother Ben whom she ends up accusing of the murders, sending him to jail. Today, Libby is a traumatized and depressive woman living in « Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas City, Kansas. There’s a difference »38, referring to the contrast in size and economic status between the two cities. Kansas City, MO, is indeed much less urban than its counterpart on the other side of the river and while it may have more touristy attractions, it is much more spread out and countrified.

  • 39 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, op. cit., p. 2.

29After living off the many donations of « well-wishers » and « do-gooders »39 who had read about her story, she is out of money, and finds another source of income by helping a group of voyeurs fascinated by her case. The members of the Kill Club, a group passionate about solving murder mysteries, are convinced that the brother did not do it. Libby thus becomes a sort of private detective who accepts a case because of financial shortcomings. Searching through her own past, however, encourages Libby to pursue her investigation for more intimate and genuine reasons. Gradually, she comes to believe in the Club’s theory and tries to make amends. In doing so, she realizes that her guilt is intrinsically linked to her native landscape and the way she was treated by the actual investigators of the case who turned her against her own brother, the easiest suspect. In Dark Places, the landscape thus has evil connotations, turning its residents into both victims and criminals prone to terrible guilt.

Guilty Spaces

30The landscapes in Flynn’s first two novels seem to contribute to the protagonists’ inescapable and gruesome fate. In Sharp Objects, for instance, the mention of « hog butchering » as Wind Gap’s principal business conveys a threatening image. The town literally smells of death. As such, it appears as an emblematic « guilty space », the source of repeated tragedies which, it seems, can only lead to more pain and sadness. Those who still live there have long lost their hope and faith in the possible revival of their small town life while those, like Camille, who managed to physically leave the place, never really seem to recover from the inherent guilt of being born « trash », causing them shame and anxiety. A fertile ground for criminal minds of all sorts, Wind Gap subverts the image of the small town as a welcoming and protective utopia and turns it into a hypocritical and old-fashioned space where the abject lurks.

31In Dark Places, the police’s superficial investigation leads them to accuse the brother, the easiest and only suspect, according to the general (and false) opinion that social misfits are most often proved to be guilty. This idea also results from the concept of « The Great Guilty Place Assumption » which, as has been discussed, states that the police tend to find their suspects in selective environments. In this case, the troubled brother who is having a hard time growing up, exploring metal music, drugs, and satanic rituals appears as the ideal culprit. The murders are even reported in the media as « The Satan Sacrifice » in reference to his occult hobbies. In that sense, Ben stands out of his environment and it is his eccentricity which makes him look guilty. The police thus pressure poor Libby into testifying against her own kin, and because her memories are blurred by the traumatic experience, she complies, causing a guilt that will never leave her.

  • 40 Even the family name seems to imply that their life comes down to that one day which would seal the (...)

32While it is true that Ben is not totally innocent (after all, he watched his pregnant girlfriend strangle one of his sisters), he is not the murderer. Like Libby, he is revealed as the product of the « dark places » he is originally from and from which he never managed to escape. Of course, there is also a profound feeling of injustice, of bad luck, of terrible fate in the story since the events all transpired on one tragic night: the climax of a life of unhappiness and misfortunes for the Days40.

  • 41 For a gendered reading of Flynn’s novels see, for example, the two recent dissertations: Enes Gülde (...)

33The novel’s atmosphere is particularly heavy. The « dark places » both symbolize Libby’s traumatic memories and the rural areas through which she roams to get hold of some truths. From the Kinnakee farm, to Kansas City, MO, to some abandoned tourist town in Oklahoma where she confronts her absent father, the landscapes of the American Midwest seem to be godforsaken, literally devoid of any form of grace and beauty. In contrast to Sharp Objects, the novel’s resolution leaves room for light in the shadows as Libby reunites with her brother, makes amends, and somehow foresees some closure for the two of them, although separately. Salvation, in Dark Places, seems to exist in the acceptance of one’s ordinariness and in the letting go of one’s traumatic past, and the adoption of « simpler » aspirations. Interestingly, it is Libby, perhaps Flynn’s most traumatized character, who eventually achieves this realization when Camille and Amy keep struggling41.

34Amy in particular has a very hard time with her new identity. She decides that she will not go down without a fight and elaborates the plan to frame her husband for her own death. Interestingly, her scheme also ensues from a sort of guilty place assumption. Leaving clues behind for the detectives to find and accuse Nick of her disappearance, she is well aware that in most marriage crimes, it is the husband who did it. The clues do not only aim at getting Nick arrested, but at totally humiliating him in front of his perfect community. To that end, Amy even hides stacks of porn in their backyard’s shack so as to convince the police as well as the community that Nick is a pervert. In this way, Amy’s plan to defame her husband emphasizes the idea that crime is somehow always worse in a small town precisely because people know each other and cannot believe that the criminal is one of their own, scandalously standing out from the ordinary.

Ordinariness

  • 42 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, op. cit., p. 345.
  • 43 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, op. cit., p. 3.
  • 44 Ibid. et p. 345.

35Ordinariness has an ambivalent nature in Flynn’s work. On the one hand, it is presented as a state of fragility and unease and, on the other hand, it is perceived as a way back to redemption. This is the case in Dark Places, whose optimistic conclusion compensates for its wickedness and brutality. The criminals, both Calvin Diehl (the one-day contracted killer) and Diondra (Ben’s ex-girlfriend) get arrested. The former, consumed by guilt, turns himself in, confessing to the murders of the mother and the baby sister. The latter gets caught as she was trying to escape, but her daughter Crystal (the unwanted result of Ben and Diondra’s wild love affair) remains on the run. As for Libby, she is looking forward to recovering her ordinariness and to finally do something with her life. She goes back to the farm, the « Darkplace [sic] » of her memories42 and is happy to see that a new family lives there, which gives her a little hope. Driving back to her neighborhood, which « doesn’t even have a name » because « it’s so forgotten »43, she finds comfort in the anonymous ordinariness that will probably shape the rest of her life. « Over There That Way »44 is where she is heading and where she is from.

36The small town of Flynn’s second novel, despite its inherent evil and guilt—even the old people are not friendly—seems to be a space of possible redemption. Yet, if the crimes are solved, the socioeconomic and moral problems that led to them still exist and remain a thorny issue for small town folks. Libby’s quest for peace requires the acceptance of her past and, ultimately, of her land. She must turn that guilty space into something fertile. In her case, atonement means accepting the absence of her relatives and the meaninglessness of those preceding years. It also means coming to terms with who she really is and never got a chance to become: an ordinary woman in an ordinary town.

  • 45 Gunhild Agger & Anne Marit Waade, op. cit., p. 74.
  • 46 Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, op. cit., p. 3.

37Camille, on the contrary, never succeeds in accepting the existential gap which has grown within her and which is encapsulated in her hometown’s very name. Wind Gap is a hole where only wind passes through to reveal a void which is both material (absence of things and people) and epistemological (absence of meaning)45. It also uncovers an ontological absence. Camille’s already fragile identity is indeed perpetually undermined (by her mother as well as by herself). She does not want to be defined by her origins. Camille is too aware of the ordinariness of Wind Gap, which she knows is only one among many « crummy towns prone to misery » scattered across the United States46. In her case, ordinariness does not mean peaceful anonymity; it means entrapment, danger.

38Similarly, Amy in Gone Girl refuses to blend in. She feels more oppressed by her neighbors’ gaze than by a New York crowd. Indeed, while it is possible to argue that she lost everything that defined her as an independent woman (including her job, house, and money) to follow her husband and become an ordinary and, she feels, bland housewife, it is also that shift which reveals her, encouraging her to become a full member of the community. Nick’s relatives are in fact very welcoming and interested in Amy’s story: how they met, what life is like in New York, etc. They even see her as something exotic, a newcomer who has seen the world, but is happy to come and live among them.

39In a paradoxical movement, Gone Girl seems to imply that the small town at once wipes out individualities and makes any deviation from « ordinariness » stand out quite starkly. Consequently, two kinds of ordinariness seem to exist: a good and a bad one, depending on who is experiencing it. In Sharp Objects, Camille never really recovers from her Wind Gap origins and returns to Chicago determined to never see her family again (except for her half-sister Amma, who happens to be the criminal). Libby, in Dark Places, despite the terrible events she went through, does not want to leave her region and seems to be ready to embrace a good form of ordinariness, the safe anonymity needed to start over. Amy, on the other hand, cannot cope with the ordinariness conferred on her by North Carthage. To her, the small town is a space where masks eventually fall and true personalities are revealed; a space where « Amazing Amy » is dead, or even worse, never existed. This ontological gap is too dreadful for Amy to handle; she’d rather be somebody else entirely – start over, but not without taking revenge first.

Conclusion

  • 47 This claim has been made by many scholars among whom Andrew Pepper and David Schmid in their introd (...)
  • 48 David Geherin, op. cit., p. 5.

40If social criticism has been part of the hard-boiled tradition since the beginning47, the rural hard-boiled offers new possibilities to dissect communities through the eyes of ordinary men and women who struggle with their own epistemological and ontological limitations. The detectives are neither heroic, nor morally superior, but entangled in a world that seems to have forgotten about them. Midwest America appears, in that sense, as a fecund region in which to set crime fictions, Main Street remaining « a promising alternative to the mean streets of the big city »48. Small town crime fiction deconstructs pastoral utopias, which for a while, were thought to remain outside the moral, social, and economic problems of modern times along with the crimes they engender. Flynn, however, not only masterfully shows that crime exists outside of the big city, she also presents a sharp commentary on rural life in the American Midwest, its communities, its ups and downs in realistic, and thus often dark, crime stories.

  • 49 Glen Creeber, « Killing Us Softly: Investigating the Aesthetics, Philosophy and Influence of Nordic (...)

41In her fiction, small towns are equally able to foster complex storyworlds full of troubled characters struggling to accept who they are and what they should do with their lives in guilty landscapes. The three novels studied in this paper offer a critical gaze on the social, economic, and moral issues relevant to small rural towns. The social realism, which both depicts society and comments on social injustice, is highlighted by the concept of « guilty space », which reflects the characters’ moods and doubts. The detective figures in particular (mostly women) raise metaphysical, or rather, metacognitive questions about life and death in remote areas and the way they interact with the rest of the world, especially big urban centers. These interrogations also point to the idea that, in a sense, « people are unknowable »49. Crime, after all, is always committed by people, even in the middle of nowhere.

  • 50 Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, op. cit., p. 411.

42Flynn’s small town crime fiction thus offers a keen sense of what it means, in her eyes, to live in the vast American Midwest, even if sometimes it means nothing. While the crime investigations are more or less rationally solved, Flynn’s protagonists still have to come to terms with their fragile identities and existential doubts. In different but related ways, Camille, Libby, and Amy have to face their « ordinary » condition, in a word: their humanness. Camille decides to let go of what she cannot control, quits alcohol, and hopes for more kindness in her life. Similarly, Libby’s quest for redemption has shown her that she deserves a life of her own, relieved of the pain and guilt she has felt for more than twenty years. Amy, in contrast, returns to her husband, inventing the story of her kidnapping by a mad former lover whom she had to kill to escape. The readers, who know otherwise, eventually have to witness Amy’s last Machiavellian trick: she is pregnant with Nick’s baby. Against all odds and after all she has put them through, Amy decides to blackmail her husband with the threat of abandoning the baby if he ever tells the truth about her disappearance. Defeated, Nick cannot but comply: « We had spent years battling for control of our marriage, of our love story, of our life story. I had been thoroughly, finally outplayed. I created a manuscript, and she created a life »50. Yet there is nothing hopeful in this birth to come: the family, itself the heart of the small town community, appears in Flynn’s work to be another source of anguish, a prison from which it is difficult to escape and in which justice cannot triumph because everyone is guilty.

43The author would like to thank John Gruesser for proofreading this article.

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Notes

1 Edward Relph defines « sense of place » as a form of « environmental connection » that is both « existential and political » and which helps grasp what the world is like and how it is changing. Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, London, Pion Limited, 1976, p. 208.

2 Interview, « Gillian Flynn Talks about Dark Places », YouTube [Online], Orion Publishing Group, published on 25 september 2009, consulted on 23 october 2020, URL : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHuEV7QGxgE

3 Interview, « Gillian Flynn on Gone Girl and the Best Setting for a Mystery », YouTube [Online], Orion Publishing Group, published on 3 january 2013, consulted on 23 october 2020, URL : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABDZiIHUjMk

4 For Kim Toft Hansen and Valentina Re, liminality is narratively significant because « placing stories in peripheral locations tends to stimulate stories about being in the periphery, including what lies beyond borders (external liminality) as well as being away from the symbolic center of the nation (internal liminality) ». Kim Toft Hansen et Valentina Re, « Producing Peripheral Locations: Double Marginality in Italian and Danish Television Crime Narratives », Cinema & Cie, vol. 21, 36/37, 2021, p. 60.

5 Andrew Pepper, « The ‘Hard-Boiled’ Genre », A Companion to Crime Fiction, Charles J. Rzepka & Lee Horsley (eds.), Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p. 141-143. In that sense, this paper follows Pepper’s conception of the hard-boiled not as a fixed subgenre but as a « fluid » category inflected with political and social assumptions and a certain degree of criticism towards « corporate capitalism ».

6 Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 48

7 Trude Gjernes et Per Måseide, « Maintaining Ordinariness in Dementia Care », Sociology of Health & Illness, vol. 42, 8, 2020, p. 1773.

8 Thomas Halper et Douglas Muzzio, « It’s a Wonderful Life: Representations of the Small Town in American Movies », European Journal of American Studies, vol. 6, 1, 2011, p. 18-19.

9 One may think, for instance, of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) or Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952).

10 David Geherin, Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction, Jefferson, McFarland, 2014, p. 1.

11 David Geherin, op. cit., p. 6.

12 Heather Worthington, Key Concepts in Crime Fiction, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, p. 30.

13 David Schmid, « From the Locked Room to the Globe: Space in Crime Fiction », in Cross-Cultural Connections in Crime Fiction, Vivien Miller & Helen Oakley (eds.), Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, p.14.

14 Bill Phillips, « Crime Fiction and the City », IAFOR Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 2, 2, 2017, p. 100.

15 Olivia Kiernan, « Small Town Crime: A World of Possibilities », CrimeReads [Online], published on 4 april 2019, consulted on 05 april 2019, URL : https://crimereads.com/small-town-crime-a-world-of-possibilities/. Kiernan certainly has in mind Henning Mankell’s Wallander series as well as the many TV series such as The Killing (Forbrydelsen, 2007-2012) or The Bridge (Bron, 2011-2018) set in Scandinavia or, on the other side of the globe, Mystery Road set in Australia. The umbrella term Nordic Noir inspired other crime fiction brand names such as Outback Noir or Country Noir, both insisting on the narratives’ locations, the latter referring to novels situated in the Ozarks which generally blend tropes inspired by the Southern Gothic and Nature writing with crime fiction. The best examples of Country Noir are Daniel Woodrell’s 1996 novel Give Us a Kiss and, of course, the recent TV series Ozark (2017-). To learn more about this new typology see Alice Jacquelin’s dissertation : Genèse et circulations d’un paradigme culturel populaire en régime médiatique : le cas du Country Noir. France-États-Unis, 1996-2016, Denis Mellier (dir.), Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Poitiers, 2019.

16 Interview, « Gillian Flynn on Gone Girl and the Best Setting for a Mystery », op. cit.

17 Martin Lefebvre, « Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema », in Landscape and Film, Martin Lefebvre (ed.), London and New York, Routledge, 2006, p. 20-21.

18 Les Roberts, « Landscapes in the Frame: Exploring Hinterlands of the British Procedural Drama », New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 14, 3, 2016, p. 8.

19 Isadora García Avis, « Adapting Landscape and Place in Transcultural Remakes: The Case of Bron/Broen, The Bridge and The Tunnel », International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, vol. 1, 2, 2015, p. 129.

20 One may also argue that both the British and the Scandinavian examples were first influenced by the American series Twin Peaks (1990 and 2017). For a detailed discussion of the Twin Peaks influence see the special issue of the International Journal of TV Serial Narratives dedicated to the subject: Anthony N. Smith, Michael Goddard et Kristy Fairclough, « Introduction: Twin Peaks’ Persistent Cultural Resonance », International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, vol. 2, 2, 2016, p. 5-8. I also personally like to add the Belgian series La trêve (The Break, 2016-2018) to the list because of its location in the heart of the Ardennes, a region portrayed as dark and dangerously mysterious.

21 Raphaël Baroni, « Intrigues et personnages des séries évolutives : quand l’improvisation devient une vertu », Télévision, vol. 7, 2016, p. 39.

22 For Agger and Waade, melancholy is a key concept which, related to that of atmosphere in Nordic Noir « encompasses elements such as complex characters, grim stories, bleak and cold landscapes, miserable settings, gloomy lighting, sound and music, as well as a particular understated acting style ». Gunhild Agger et Anne Marit Waade, « Melancholy and Murder: Feelings, Atmosphere and Social Criticism in Television Crime Series », in European Television Crime Drama and Beyond, Kim Toft Hansen, Steven Peacock & Sue Turnbull (eds.), Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, p. 69.

23 Stijn Reijnders, Places of the Imagination Media, Tourism, Culture, Surrey, Ashgate, 2011, p. 34-36.

24 Stijn Reijnders, op. cit., p. 34.

25 Les Roberts, op. cit., p. 16.

26 Cyndi Banks, Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed., Los Angeles, Sage, 2013, p. 62.

27 David Geherin, op. cit., p. 8.

28 As Kiernan also pointed out, the return to the hometown is a leitmotif in many contemporary crime narratives. To give but a few examples one can think of Rebecca Morris’s A Murder in My Hometown (2018) or Creg Iles’s Cemetery Road or the TV series Top of the Lake (2013).

29 Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, New York, Broadway Books, 2006, p. 3.

30 Ibid.

31 According to Julia Kristeva, the abject appears as the most extreme form of existential and intellectual privation, « the place where meaning collapses ». Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Leon S. Roudiez (trad.), New York, Columbia University Press, 1982 [1980], p. 2. Moreover, the abject, like the grotesque but without the positive connotations, indicates a downwards movement, a return to materiality and the body’s lower parts, in Claire Lozier’s terms: « The abject represents the material, the bodily and the passions (the ‘abject parts’ are the organs of reproduction and excretion) ». Claire Lozier, De l’abject et du sublime : Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett. Bern, Peter Lang, 2012, p. 20, my translation.

32 Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, New York, Broadway Books, 2012, p. 13-14.

33 Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, op. cit., p. 118.

34 Thomas Halper et Douglas Muzzio, op. cit., p. 19.

35 Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, op. cit., p. 7.

36 In fact, a study published in Forbes magazine talks of a « retail Armageddon » hitting small towns in the US since the 1980s. Jarred Schenke, « National Retailers Are Abandoning Small Town, USA », Forbes [Online], published on 19 april 2017, consulted on 25 november 2020, URL : https://www.forbes.com/sites/bisnow/2017/04/19/national-retailers-are-abandoning-small-town-usa/?sh=c82f5ce3ba9f

37 Heather Worthington, op. cit., p. 31.

38 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, New York, Broadway Books, 2009, p. 3.

39 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, op. cit., p. 2.

40 Even the family name seems to imply that their life comes down to that one day which would seal their fate forever.

41 For a gendered reading of Flynn’s novels see, for example, the two recent dissertations: Enes Gülderen, Feminism in Gillian Flynn’s Novels: Violence, Malice and Amorality as the Basis of a
Post-Feminist Agenda, Josepf Raab (dir.), Ph.D. dissertation, Universität Duisburg-Essen, 2019; and Rebecca Kane, This is a (Wo)man’s World – Subverting Gender & Femininity in Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, Marion Marlowe (dir.), BA, University of Strathclyde, 2019.

42 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, op. cit., p. 345.

43 Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, op. cit., p. 3.

44 Ibid. et p. 345.

45 Gunhild Agger & Anne Marit Waade, op. cit., p. 74.

46 Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, op. cit., p. 3.

47 This claim has been made by many scholars among whom Andrew Pepper and David Schmid in their introduction to Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2016, pp. 1-2; but also Frederic Jameson in his Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality, London/New York, Verso, 2016.

48 David Geherin, op. cit., p. 5.

49 Glen Creeber, « Killing Us Softly: Investigating the Aesthetics, Philosophy and Influence of Nordic Noir Television », Journal of Popular Television, vol. 3, 1, 2015, p. 29.

50 Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, op. cit., p. 411.

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Antoine Dechêne, « Gillian Flynn’s Small Town Crime Fiction  »Belphégor [En ligne], 21-2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 21 décembre 2023, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/5573 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/belphegor.5573

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Auteur

Antoine Dechêne

Haute École de la Province de Liège

Antoine Dechêne holds a PhD from the Université de Liège, Belgium. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of English (Maître-Assistant) at the Haute École de la Province de Liège. A
B.A.E.F. alumnus, his research deals with all aspects of the metaphysical detective story in the USA and in France as well as with detective series and glocalization. Dechêne has published in English, French, and Spanish in journals such as Crime Fiction Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, Clues, and MFS. Most notably, he is the author of Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018) and the co-editor with Michel Delville of the first volume dedicated to the genre in French: Le Thriller métaphysique d'Edgar Allan Poe à nos jours (Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2016).
 
Antoine Dechêne est Docteur en Langues et Lettres de l’Université de Liège. Il est Maitre- Assistant en langues étrangères à la Haute École de la Province de Liège. Sa recherche porte sur le roman policier métaphysique aux USA et en France ainsi que sur les concepts de sérialité, de glocalité et de monde narratif. Dechêne est notamment l’auteur de Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge (Palgrave MacMillan 2018) et le co-éditeur, avec Michel Delville, du premier ouvrage dédié au genre en français : Le Thriller métaphysique d'Edgar Allan Poe à nos jours (Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2016).
 
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