I am sure we all have authors we love that are no longer alive.
For me, it is Patricia Highsmith. She wrote Strangers on a Train which was made into the amazing Hitchcock film of the same name.
She also wrote the Ripley series, the most popular one being The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Ripley books have been adapted for the silver screen several times, and the titular character has been played by Matt Damon, John Malkovich and Alain Delon. There are a little over a dozen more titles in the Highsmith canon, all of them worth reading.
Highsmith was a master of the psychological thriller. Her characters are richly dark and yet it is not uncommon for the reader to pull for the wicked dramatis personae of her stories.
She perfected the modern day anti-hero decades before the Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites of recent years.
There was really nothing else like Patricia Highsmith. No other author I have ever read has been able to combine such a level of psychological suspense and multi-layered character development while simultaneously structuring a narrative that wets the brain so fervently wherein the reader’s fingers itch to turn to the next page before finishing reading the present one.
When one happens across a writer that is no longer alive, with whose work they so strongly indentify and enjoy, it becomes blissfully painful when the fact is realized that this writer will write no more words. For in death there is no more narrative.
I read Ms. Highsmith’s novels over and over again. Eventually I realized the sad truth that with repetition the power of her words would diminish. I still re-read her books often, yet they will never have the power over me that they did on their first reading.
I sought after similar writers to try to fill the void, yet to no avail.
There are myriad “If you like this author…” sites online. You type in the name of your favorite author and the site’s software is supposed to magically burp up a similar author. I’ve tried many of these sites, typing in Patricia Highsmith’s name, and never getting anything close in response. I don’t blame these sites’ software or begrudge their intentions; I just came to realize there may never be anything else like her again.
In 2012 a book titled Gone Girl was released by Crown Publishing Group by an author named Gillian Flynn. The novel quickly became a sensation, rising to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It has remained in the top levels of that list for over 200 weeks. It was made into a blockbuster film by powerhouse director David Fincher. Mrs. Flynn adapted the screenplay from her own novel.
Whenever a book makes this big of a splash and is then made into a successful film, I’m going to read the book first because we all know that the book is most likely going to be better than the movie, right?
So I picked up the book and within the first few pages I was hooked. Ms. Flynn’s method of telling her story, while not new, is refreshing and immediately engaging. I won’t spoil anything here but the book has alternating chapters between a husband telling his story about how his wife goes missing, and the wife’s side of the same story told via her diary.
Obviously the husband is the main suspect, yet there are dozens of twists and turns along the way. The storytelling form and function is delectable and what might keep the reader even more engaged is the author’s multifarious character development.
I remember being overcome with a slight but pleasant case of deja vu about halfway through the first act of Gone Girl. All of a sudden I started to realize what was so gripping to me about Ms. Flynn’s narrative style: I was reading the closest thing possible to a modern day version of Patricia Highsmith. Much like Ms. Highsmith, Flynn manipulates the reader and makes no apologies along the way. It was like happening across a literary holy grail, for this reader at least. I couldn’t read the book fast enough, and if I remember correctly I finished it in about one and a half sessions, the first half being a wee-hour rampage that only ended because my eyelids eventually lost their strength.
After finishing the book I felt like I had to know more about this new incarnation of my favorite novelist. I jumped into the google machine and was quickly thereafter gobsmacked with what I found: several interviews (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and her AMA on Reddit to name a few) where she named her main inspiration as one Ms. Patricia Highsmith, further establishing her as the heir apparent to the Ripley creator’s throne. N.B. Flynn seems to have been particularly enamored with the Highsmith novel Deep Water, a notable reference when comparing the two writers.
Needless to say, I was happy to see that Ms. Flynn had a couple of other earlier offerings available, and scooped both of them up as quickly as Whispernet ™ would allow. I’ll give some brief thoughts on each of them here.
This is Ms. Flynn’s debut novel, which she wrote before she even had an agent. It was published in 2006 and it’s about a young up and coming journalist named Camille Preaker who lives in Chicago. She has moved there from a small town in Missouri where two recent murders have occurred. The victims were young girls and smelling an exclusive scoop, Camille’s editor dispatches her back home to put the story together.
The case and its suspects and circumstances end up being darkly woven into Camille’s own family and history in the town. I don’t really want to tip any more than that, but I will say that if you thought Gone Girl was leaning a bit to the macabre side, Sharp Objects has no problem tipping right on over into a deeply chilling space. It may even be more “Highsmith-y” than Gone Girl. It’s a pretty wild ride.
This is Flynn’s sophomore novel and I’ll admit was my least favorite of the three, however when it got to the third act it absolutely crackled off of the page.
This one was so dark. Yes I know, it’s called “Dark Places” and I should expect that, but I had a difficult time finding anyone to root for. This was a much slower build than the other two but with a massive denouement.
Also, this is the first time we see Flynn working with the alternate-point-of-view-by-chapter-break mechanism. Although this story is told a little differently. It alternates between a first person narrative of the main character Libby, and a third person narrative taking place many years ago.
The high concept is that Libby Day was a victim of a home invasion a couple of decades ago wherein her mother and two sisters were brutally slaughtered. Libby was the only survivor in the home. This took place on a farm in Kansas (reminiscent of In Cold Blood, maybe?). Her older brother was convicted of the crime and in present day, a group of crime enthusiasts get her to revisit the crime and the possibility of her brother’s innocence. The denouement I mentioned before really steps out there, perhaps overarching just a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great book, I just like the other two much better.
There is a reoccurring notion that weaves through all three titles, that of the idea that “you can never go home again.” In each of the novels, the protagonists leave comfortable lives to revisit their pasts, where proverbial demons and skeletons lurk and offer no escape without confrontation.
If you would like to dive in head first, you can get a complete set of all three novels for just $12.99 on Kindle or for about $28.00 in new paperback.
Ms Flynn is flying high right now, a sort of rock star of the literary world. She is planning a wide sprawling novel next, followed by a Young Adult novel. In the mean time she has signed on to team back up with Gone Girl director David Fincher to write the teleplay for his upcoming T.V. series called Utopia. Also, a lifelong comic books fan, she is writing the book with illustrator David Gibbons for a Dark Horse Comics book called Masks.
I for one, look forward to every bit of work she has in store.
Gillian Flynn lives in Chicago with her husband Brett Nolan and her two children.
-Don Theo III