A toxic marriage smoulders at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s latest crime novel, Gone Girl. Nick and Amy Dunne were once a golden couple in New York, but a combination of redundancy and family illness has brought them back to Missouri and the “recession-busted” town where Nick grew up. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick discovers Amy is missing. There’s blood in the kitchen, signs of a struggle, and Amy’s friends tell the police she was scared of him. Immediately Nick becomes the number one suspect.
Flynn describes the book as a “marital thriller”. Indeed, Gone Girl is as much about a marriage as it is about a crime. “It’s a mystery where the solution is not to go further and further out, but to go deeper and deeper within a marriage,” she says, over the telephone from her home in Chicago. “I think everyone has those moments when they look at their spouse and think: ‘Who are you?’” She adds: “In a failing marriage, there’s always a sense of ‘how in the world did this happen?’ You want to try and backtrack to figure it out—which is what a mystery is too.”
The missing wife and the suspect husband is a staple of true crime. Gone Girl began with Flynn (who describes herself as having an “unfortunate addiction” to the genre) pondering that situation: “How do you act when you are immediately under suspicion, whether or not you did it?”
As Nick deals with the whispers and pointing fingers, we also hear from Amy, in the form of her diary entries from the time before she vanished. It soon becomes apparent that both parties are telling their side of the story—and that these stories contradict each other. Someone isn’t telling the truth: “Are you dealing with one unreliable narrator or two? How much is them just getting their memories wrong? I really enjoyed playing with that,” Flynn says.
Flynn is a big fan of the unreliable narrator in fiction, citing Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal as an example: “I love the sense of being in the hands of someone whose truthfulness is in question. You’re placing yourself in this person’s care and you’re not sure if they are worthy of that trust. I think it’s a really delicious, uncomfortable, disturbing feeling.”
Surprisingly for a crime writer, Flynn doesn’t plot her novels out beforehand. “I don’t at all,” she says with a laugh, “it’s the worst! I don’t know how else to really do it though, and it’s gotten me through three books so far.” This means she ends up with whole chapters—and even characters—who don’t end up in the final novel: “I’m someone who needs to write two books for every book that gets published.”
The plot, and its clever twist, may have come to Flynn in the process of writing: “The plot always comes to service the characters for me. What I’m always interested in is the characters, and I think mysteries are a fantastic way to do a character study.” But the characters of Amy and Nick were clear in her head from the very beginning.
Amy, especially, is a superb creation. Without wanting to give too much away, readers familiar with Flynn’s earlier novels Sharp Objects and Dark Spaces will find a female character in-keeping with Flynn’s earlier protagonists. When Flynn started writing, she noted the lack of what she calls “good, potent female villains”—from the gauntlet of the merely unlikeable to the downright evil.
“There are these very easy stereotypes—the soapy sort of vampy, bitch types—but you didn’t have enough of those women that really got under your skin and drove you crazy that I think most people have met in their life. People who know how to work the system and manipulate and do evil with a smile. I liked exploring that.”
Evidently readers did too, as Flynn’s 2007 début Sharp Objects, won both the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Fiction Dagger (for the best first book by a previously unpublished writer) and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger (for the year’s best thriller). With such an auspicious start, was she worried about living up to that success? “When you have a very lucky début, as that was, it definitely makes you nervous for the second one,” she says. “Everyone has the second-book fear.”
With three books under her belt, Flynn will start work on number four in the next month or so. She hasn’t started thinking about it just yet, but predicts it will be “something dark, I’m sure. I definitely won’t suddenly write a fizzy chick-lit novel about shopping and shoes.”
Gone Girl is out now, published by W&N.