By Jennifer Reese
Updated April 29, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Gillian Flynn coolly demolished the notion that little girls are made of sugar and spice in Sharp Objects, her sensuous and chilling first thriller. In Dark Places, her equally sensuous and chilling follow-up, Flynn — who was, until recently, a TV critic at EW, though our paths never crossed — has conjured up a whole new crew of feral and troubled young females. Narrator Libby Day is one of the nicer women in the book, and here’s how she introduces herself on the first page: ”I have a meanness in 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.”

Nasty. What exactly is wrong with Day blood? One night some 25 years ago, Libby’s older brother, Ben, allegedly butchered their mother and two sisters. Seven-year-old Libby, who escaped into the dark, later testified against him, and Ben went to prison. But was justice served? Contacted by The Kill Club, a secret society of crime junkies who question Ben’s guilt, Libby, who still lives off the proceeds of her victimhood, cynically agrees to investigate the long-ago murders — for a fee, of course.

Flynn cuts between Libby’s sleuthing and flashbacks to the fraught days leading up to the bloodbath. Libby’s mother is broke and depressed, while poor Ben careens through an uncommonly hellish adolescence. He has a diabolical pregnant girlfriend who likes to give him the disembodied genitals of dead animals. He also harbors an ill-advised crush on a spoiled 11-year-old girl, a sly nymphet who would have been right at home in 17th-century Salem. The poor dude doesn’t stand a chance. Alas, it would be easier to feel for Ben if his plight were just a tiny bit less horrible. Watching one spectacularly rotten girl wreak havoc is delicious; more than that can be too much of a bad thing.

As this propulsive and twisty mystery unfolds, malefactors multiply, and they skew heavily young and female. Flynn is absolutely correct that girls can be as vicious as boys, but reading her novel you actually start to wonder if it’s a sex-linked trait. B

Dark Places

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