For Gillian Flynn fans, the draw of her books is simple: they’re modern tales with huge twists — stories that readers hang narratives upon only for all truth and faith to be upended.
The twist is one of Flynn’s hallmarks but is hardly her singular literary trait. Her books boast complicated, “unlikable” female characters who have unique takes on what it means to be a feminist. These books often tackle midwestern tensions via the “returning home” trope, where a character or characters must excavate their past in order to move forward. Flynn loves a violent plot, but she loves a vice-driven set of characters even more. To inhabit Flynn’s world is to take the idea of true crime and throw it into a dark well of the unexpected.
Unsurprisingly, Flynn has built an empire off this brand of writing, becoming one of the most successful (richest) authors in the world with works that have been adapted into critically acclaimed films and a buzzworthy television series. Yet one of the biggest subjects in her work, one that stretches across her four books, has largely gone unnoticed — and it’s the most relatable, most insidious enemy: class.
NOTE: The remainder of this post includes heavy spoilers for the works of Gillian Flynn.
Flynn’s books tend to sketch characters whose struggles are tied to their socioeconomic status. Whether filthy rich or debt-ridden, her characters are motivated by an original sin tied to an economic woe, particularly one that has shifted their life to or from success. The results? Persons so crazed by money that they kill.
The subject lies beneath each of her texts, uniting them, showing that Flynn’s fingers have the force to push readers (and characters) around because of what they can and cannot afford. She’s even admitted so much herself, leaving this giant breadcrumb in the open: “You have this wonderful propulsion of the mystery that can pull you through discussions about socioeconomics and family dynamics and personalities,” Flynn told Public Libraries Online in 2013. “I think when mysteries are at their best that’s what they’re doing.”
Once you see that her mysteries are tied to money, you won’t be able to see her works as anything else but economic commentary.
In 2006’s Sharp Objects, Flynn’s debut novel that has been adapted into 2018’s summer must-see-show, journalist Camille Preaker returns home to report on the murder of a teenage girl only to find a series of misbehaviors at the feet of her family. This is largely because of Camille’s mother Adora, the rich matriarch who looms over the entire town of Wind Gap, Missouri. “Her parents, my grandparents, had owned the pig farm and half the houses around it,” Camille explains well into the novel. “[They] kept my mother under the same strict rules they applied to their workers: no drinking, no smoking, no cursing, church service mandatory.” Unsurprisingly, this had the small town “bootlick[ing] the Preakers,” as local gossip Jackie explains to Camille.
This is the catalyst for what becomes an exhibition of Munchausen-by-proxy and privileges run wild: the respectability politics that Adora’s parents instill in her create a mania for attention and self-victimization that trickles down to Amma, Camille’s more sophisticated, louder stepsister. It’s mentioned that Adora is an “expert in illness and injury” while Amma “demanded uncontested love and loyalty.” Adora slowly poisoned her daughter Marian to maintain an attention afforded to mourning mothers. Years later, in response to Adora poisoning her, Amma killed both three of her teenage peers because they were stealing attention that either Adora or Camille could give her.
For the Preakers, to be rich is to be the apple of everyone’s eye. This ultimately manifests as rich, bratty behavior run amok, taken to a deadly degree. By the time Amma’s truth is revealed, we learn this is rich nonsense: “A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.” While literal poison is at play, the metaphorical equivalent is very firmly tied to the haves instead of the have-nots of Wind Gap.
Flynn’s follow up, 2009’s Dark Places, turns directly to the subject of economics and, of all her works, economics is most melted with her other major touchstone: the twist. The novel presents Libby Day, a young woman whose family was murdered as a result of a supposed satanic ritual, in search for money after an inheritance of donations from “well-wishers who’d read about [her] sad story” runs dry. Libby gets involved with wannabe true crime detectives in a “Kill Club” who try to solve the crime of her farm family in Kinnakee, Kansas. What unfolds is another story of family dramas turned dark, this time due to money drama.
And what is this drama? Libby’s mother, Patty Day, is plagued by bills and finds a suitable escape by way of the “Angel of Debt” subplot, a person (in this case, Calvin Diehl, his last name homonym for “deal”) who kills debtors so their family can collect insurance money. “I can make a useful death,” Patty explains in an entry of this revolving narrative. “My life has been determined so much by accidents, it seems nice that now an ‘accident on purpose’ will make things right again.” This “Angel of Debt” is known for “random crime[s], as believable as the other stuff he’d pulled, car crashes and hopper collapses” and Patty is confident that she can get rid of her problems by this get-dead-then-rich scheme.
Unfortunately, Patty’s “Angel of Debt” death date collides with her unlucky streak, because her son and Libby’s brother Ben Day — one of the other narratives in this revolver — plans to attack and rob his own family so he can escape with his pregnant girlfriend on the same date. What should be an easy out from financial burdens for Patty turns into a muddled killing spree of almost her entire family.
2012’s Gone Girl, likely Flynn’s most popular work, is the book most talked about in relationship to money as it’s been written and written and written about how the book (and film) dissects trying to make it during the American recession. Yes, there are subplots like the Blue Book Boys — a group of men who were laid off from the local paper factory — and poor Ozark vagrants, but the crux of the financial action is Amy Dunne’s socioeconomic dissatisfaction, her frustration with getting mixed up in “Middle-American blight.”
When Amy is brought to Missouri by her husband Nick Dunne, an all-American guy who loses his magazine job and must move back home to tend to his dying mother, her façade of being the “cool girl” for fun begins to crumble as her trust fund is raided by her parents, leaving her in a position she despises: a bored country housewife. Like any normal person in this situation, she subsequently fakes her death to take revenge out on her husband and parents.
Amy sums up her “frivolous, spoiled” brat motivations to kill or be killed as a result of her class being shifted involuntarily: “Amazing Amy, the girl who never did wrong, let herself be dragged, penniless, to the middle of the country, where her husband threw her over for a younger woman.” “How predictable, how perfectly average,” she muses, before shifting to her parents who “never, ever fully appreciated the fact that that they were earning money from [her] existence,” who allowed Nick to “bundle [her] off to Missouri like [she] was some piece of chattel, some mail-order bride, some property exchange,” for enabling her to to have “no money, no home, no friends.” “They deserve to suffer too,” she concludes.
Although Amy does win in the end, becoming the breadwinner once again (“I have a book deal: I am officially in control of our story.”), the most interesting aspect of Flynn’s money management is that the poor usurp the rich. Apart from Nick rocking Amy’s class status, the center of the book features Ozark Amy trying to lay low, undercover, as her impoverished “trailer” frenemies squeeze her so dry of money that she realizes she is powerless and has to tap her platinum phonebook to have an old friend, a rich former fling, rescue her. Even after this bailout, Amy still wants to right the wrongs of her economic life, eventually killing Desi so she can stumble back to Nick to ensure that he is properly punished by being locked in their marriage via fatherhood and other domestic trappings.
Flynn’s 2015 novella The Grownup centers the rich and poor by placing an alternative to Amy’s trailer park frenemies at the narrative’s heart: an unnamed young woman who grew up panhandling before jacking men off for cash and, finally, becoming a con artist psychic dreaming of the lux life. When well-off Susan Burke seeks the young woman’s help in smudging out a supposed ghost that she believes is causing her stepson Miles Burke to misbehave, the young woman sees an economic escape. “Twelve visits for $2,000 seemed like a good price point,” she explains. “Spread them out, one a month, over a year, and give the stepson time to sort himself out, get adjusted to the new school, the new kids. Then he’s cured and I’m the hero, and pretty soon Susan is referring all her rich, nervous friends to me. I could go into business for myself, and when people asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I’d say, I’m an entrepreneur in that haughty way entrepreneurs had.”
The ghost story that unfolds in this 64-page book isn’t a line between life and death but the line crossed between class, of financial blemish. By the time the “twist” in this story takes place, we realize there is no ghost but instead a new version of one of Flynn’s rich brats: Miles, a kid who sees that he can take advantage of the young woman because of her unfortunate financial position. Miles cons his mother into believing he is “haunted,” uncovers the young woman and his father’s affair, and subsequently holds this information ransom all so the young woman could do his bidding (which, in his teenage mind, is best suited for having the young woman drive him to a supernatural convention). “Miles was right,” the young woman realizes as she is forced to realize that she must comply with Miles. “People like me didn’t go to the police, ever, because it never turned out well for us.”
What’s clear in examining Flynn’s books is that there is an obsession, a focus, on economics that is out in the open but not necessarily acknowledged directly, an illustration of a sort of mastercraft writer who can create such complex — and real — worlds that the most obvious, relatable aspects are overlooked. For Flynn and her characters, to have too little or too much money causes trauma and, in many cases, is the prick that prickles her princesses. The economic tendencies that Flynn has makes her stories even more powerful as America is currently deep in a quiet war between the powerful and the powerless, as class divides widen even greater because rich politicians and leaders turn up their noses to notions of their having privilege.
Sharp Objects may be trending on the television but the work of Gillian Flynn is more present than ever thanks to the inequalities and financial burdens of today’s American economics. The proof is in her books but, as always, Flynn has trained us to look the other way. Perhaps this is her best twist yet? We shall see.