Saturday, August 4, 2018


THE GROWNUP by Gillian Flynn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A young woman is making a living, faking it as a cut-price psychic working at Spiritual Palms (with some illegal soft-core sex work on the side). She makes a decent wage - mostly by telling people what they want to hear. But then she meets Susan Burke. Susan moved to the city one year ago with her husband and 15-year old stepson Miles. They live in a Victorian house called Carterhook Manor, built in 1893. 

Susan has become convinced that some malevolent spirit is inhabiting their home, and taking possession of the stepson. She has even found trickles of blood on the wall. The young woman doesn't believe in exorcism or the supernatural, but she does see an opportunity to make a lot of money. However when she enters the house for the first time, and meets Miles, she begins to feel it too, as if the very house is watching her, waiting, biding its time.... 

Put simply, for my mind Gillian Flynn is one of the finest writers to emerge over the last fifteen years. But I don't think that because of GONE GIRL, the breakout global bestseller that some point to as the ignition point for the modern tsunami of domestic noir (amplified by the film adaptation).

While GONE GIRL is a very good book in many ways - and certainly captured the imagination of the publishing world and millions of people around the world, for me I actually think Flynn's earlier books that have so far got less widespread and 'casual reader' attention, such as DARK PLACES, were even more unsettling-ly brilliant. Though in the wake of GONE GIRL's success, a larger light is now being shone on them too. Recently Flynn's extraordinary debut SHARP OBJECTS has been made into a television series starring Amy Adams, which is getting all sorts of great reviews already.

The one downside of all the GONE GIRL success is that Flynn hasn't written another novel since - more than six years now. Not that she hasn't been busy, as she actually wrote the screenplay for the film version  (unusual for a crime novelist whose work is adapted), and is also a writer-producer on the television series Sharp Objects, as well as writing for two other television projects.

Sadly perhaps, like the sublime Neil Cross (BURIAL, CAPTURED, Luther, Hard Sun), we may have lost Flynn's novel-writing talents to screen storytelling, as that can be all-consuming. But Flynn has released another on-the-page crime tale since GONE GIRL, this Edgar Award-winning short story, verging on a novella. And what a great read it is. Originally published as "What Would You Do?" in the ROGUES anthology edited by George RR Martin, a cross-genre short story collection that also included the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joe R. Lansdale, it's been released as a slim solo volume.

This is a witty and refreshing take on a haunted house tale. Flynn draws the reader in with unconventional characters and oddball happenings, powered by flowing writing that just has a wee edge to it to make it different and compelling, to stand out from the crowd. As you'd expect from Flynn, it's an unpredictable tale with a shady and nuanced female lead. There are some things that may put some readers off - the lead character is a sex worker turned psychic, and Flynn blends in horror tropes not just crime and mystery and her usual psychological thriller talents. But for me it all worked wonderfully, with Flynn layering in quite a bit for a short story, keeping the forward drive flowing, the reader guessing, and pulling the rug out from the reader several times. The characters are shades of grey, and it's tough to work out who's playing who (perhaps they're all playing each other).

A short, fun, unusual read from a hyper-talented storyteller.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned feature writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards.

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