A month ago, an article in the New York Times detailed how commercial authors like Lisa Scottoline now feel pressure to write faster than ever, some cranking out two novels a year in order (so they claim) to stay at the forefront of their readers’ minds.
I won’t list all the reasons this is bad for the publishing world, because Gone Girl happens to be a much more eloquent argument against the two-books-a-year publishing model.
Gillian Flynn writes one mystery every three years, one mystery worth at least half a dozen of the crappy, wooden thrillers cranked out by the Lisa Scottoline method. Flynn’s previous book, Dark Places, stunned me with its excellent execution of a tricky premise, and it instantly became one of the top five mysteries I’ve ever read. Now Gone Girl joins it and indicates that Flynn just might be the best mystery writer alive.
From the cover, the quality can be hard to guess—as was the case with Dark Places. Flynn’s biggest weakness is her titling, and Gone Girl’s premise doesn’t lend itself to inviting flap copy: a woman, Amy, disappears on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary, and the police focus, as expected, on her husband, Nick. Did he do it? Didn’t he?
Such a well-worn setup can lead to a vacant, predictable novel, like last summer’s Before I Go to Sleep, which focused on a mentally damaged wife who didn’t trust her husband, and melodramaed its way to a hackneyed, predictable ending.
Luckily, Flynn seems to be allergic to predictability. Gone Girl has a couple of dynamite twists, ones that less sure-footed writers would have botched or simply not conceived of. This book kept me up late two different nights, and while it slacked just a bit at points, it never disappointed.
I’m not going to say anything more about the plot or the structure because this is an easy book to spoil (seriously, don’t even read the table of contents). Instead, let’s take a look at Flynn’s writing.
She crafts amiable, entertaining prose (when the scene isn’t nail-bitingly intense). Like this passage, when Nick wakes up, the morning Amy goes missing:
My eyes flipped open at exactly six A.M. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.
This is a fun paragraph describing a likeable character, and that alone is diamond-rare in the dark mines of contemporary mystery writing. What makes Flynn a true star is that she multitasks: this is not just an entertaining paragraph, it also provides several clues as to Nick’s situation, mindset, and character, and plays the first foreboding grace note in a long crescendo of catastrophe.
Most bestselling mystery writers work in two distinct modes—Plot and Filler—and in order to squeeze in a passage that doesn’t read like a police report, they have to lurch mechanically into entertainment mode, only to rattle off uncomfortable jokes as irrelevant to the goings on as your drunk uncle’s proclamations are to Thanksgiving.
Other writers, like Flynn’s contemporary Tana French, simply don’t bother much with enjoyable writing—they focus on wearying, overdramatic characters whose wailing and teeth-gnashing deliver a few thrills at the expense of all likeability.
Then there are writers like James Lee Burke and Benjamin Black, who both write beautiful prose and fun characters, but often give up a tight pace or a riveting mystery to do it.
Flynn simply nails it all. Gone Girl is intense, surprising, substantially different from Flynn’s previous work, and exponentially better written than the average mystery on shelves. Suffice it to say that if you’re a mystery fan, you need to read this book.
Additionally, French writes a series—four books about the same quirky department, and the same general themes, too. Flynn’s books are all self-encapsulated, with brand-new characters and fresh thematic material, which takes much more effort much more talent (at least if they’re going to be good, as Flynn’s books are).