Gillian Flynn, author of “Sharp Objects” and “Dark Places,” has won a reputation as a writer of dark and twisted page-turners, murder mysteries that use morally muddied protagonists to great effect. Her third and latest novel, “Gone Girl,” delivers similar thrills. The finely wrought plot and slow build of information stays just on the right side of believable. Two characters share the spotlight: Nick and Amy Elliot Dunne, a married couple.
Nick and Amy meet at a Manhattan Christmas party. He’s a witty journalist; she’s a magazine quiz writer and the original inspiration for a series of children’s books her parents wrote, “The Amazing Amy” franchise. Flynn uses this background information to hilarious advantage as the story unfolds. The Amazing Amy in the books (who always does the right thing) is eerily reflected in the aggressively perfectionist adult Amy:
“At a party you find yourself surrounded by genuine talented writers, employed at high-profile, respected newspapers and magazines. You merely write quizzes for women’s rags. When someone asks what you do for a living, you:
Get embarrassed and say, “I’m just a quiz writer, it’s silly stuff!”
Go on the offense: “I’m a writer now, but I’m considering something more challenging and worthwhile —why, what do you do?”
Take pride in your accomplishments: “I write personality quizzes using the knowledge gleaned from my master’s degree in psychology — oh, and fun fact: I am the inspiration for a beloved children’s-book series, I’m sure you know it, Amazing Amy? Yeah, so suck it, snobdouche! Answer: C, totally C”
Nick, a blue-collar boy who grew up in North Carthage, Missouri, with a bilious father and oppressed mother, has worked since age 14. During his childhood summers, he entertained tourists by playing Huck Finn. Amy, the only child of high-society power couple Rand and Marybeth Elliot, was doted on yet held to impossibly high standards. As she grows up, she retains this obsession with superiority, with being the best. In her native New York, she can pursue these goals to her satisfaction, even after both she and Nick lose their jobs. But when the Dunnes relocate to North Carthage so Nick can help his ailing parents, her energies find fewer outlets.
Nick opens a bar (cutely named The Bar) with his twin sister, cutely named Go. Meanwhile, Amy tries to do things the North Carthage way. Home alone all day, she strives to be the perfect wife and homemaker. But her diary entries belie increasing dissatisfaction with her lot and growing paranoia about her husband.
On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears. Nick returns from The Bar to find the door to their house wide open, living room furniture in disarray, and perhaps most alarmingly, the laundry left un-ironed: “Amy would never have left the house with the teakettle on. Or the door open. Or anything waiting to be ironed. The woman got shit done, and she was not one to abandon a project … even if she didn’t like it.”
Nick seems strangely unmoved by his wife’s disappearance. His musings about such subjects as the shape of her head should raise some eyebrows: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or riverbed fossil.” From the very first page, Nick shares some peculiar emotions about his spouse.
As the police swing into action, Nick embarks on his own search, a romantic scavenger hunt Amy arranged in the weeks preceding her disappearance, an anniversary tradition for the Dunnes. He hopes that the intricate, rhymed clues Amy has penned will lead him to her, dead or alive. As the blame starts to shift toward him, Nick scrambles to stay a step ahead of everyone else.
In some ways, “Gone Girl” is a typical thriller/murder mystery. The characters are much less subtle than those of literary fiction, and the plot requires several leaps of faith. But it’s all in the service of a greater aim: a truly engaging and entertaining novel that makes you wonder what the author is going to write next.