Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn's debut novel, is more than just a serial-killer mystery, more than merely another psychological thriller. It's a little of both that also manages at times to be wickedly humorous; at times to be scathing commentary on the role of women in our society. On the subject of women, however; you shouldn’t read Sharp Objects unless you love - or you don't love - your mother. Camille Preaker has carved out a fairly comfortable existence as the second-string crime reporter on a third-rate Chicago newspaper. That’s all going to change when she's sent to the rural village of Wind Gap, Missouri, on a reporter’s dream assignment: a serial killer investigation. Not just any serial killer, either, since this one's been killing little girls. She remains ambivalent about the trip, mostly because Wind Gap happens to be her home town - and Camille Preaker’s more than a mere native of Wind Gap; she’s royalty. It's the place where everything began for her; not all of it good – or even sane.
"Vanish," her forearm murmurs.
"Don’t," whispers the nape of her neck.
"Wicked! Wicked!" chants her right thigh.
You see, Camille's a cutter: almost every square inch of her should-be-beautiful body is scarred; tiny words carved into her flesh by her own hand. Cutting is just one manifestation of a self-destructive psyche: there are also the penchant for rough, anonymous sex and the case of incipient alcoholism; all deficiencies she blames on Adora Preaker-Crellin. Adora: Mommy Dearest, Queen of Wind Gap, the chief reason Camille hasn't been back to the family home for eight years. The reason for lots of things...
There could be a Pulitzer in this story, though, so Camille reluctantly shambles home: home into the nest of jealousy and lies that comprise Wind Gap. Home to the place where her little sister died; where her spoiled-princess half-sister now holds court. For Camille, her return feels much like a week-long high-school reunion. Not a good thing, since for Camille, high school was decidedly unpleasant.
The big-city reporter noses around Wind Gap, as intrepid reporters always do. She gnaws at her home town's dirty little secrets like a delinquent pokes a hornet's nest, irritates just about everyone she encounters, and finds a way to have hot, nasty sex with any attractive unmarried man she meets. She soon finds herself hungrily eyeing nearby sharp objects; soon finds herself starting her drinking at mid-morning and not quitting after just a few. Being near Adora is clearly unhealthy for Camille; and apparently unhealthy for the woman-child who's her little sister as well. In her return to Wind Gap, Camille Preaker will learn that there are more demons in need of exorcism in town than just her own... a lesson she’ll learn the hard way.
More than most, writers of first novels tend to follow the rule to "write what you know." If Gillian Flynn (previously known primarily as a book reviewer for "Entertainment Weekly") has personal insight into the Preaker family dynamic in Sharp Objects, she may well be one royally screwed-up woman. Her Camille is a walking DSM IV of psychological damage, from her rampant paranoia to her list of self-destructive habits; and of all the women in her family, she is clearly the nearest to "normal" (whatever that might mean). Yes, hers is that kind of family; a family to which application of the overused term "dysfunctional" might well seem high praise.
The Preaker-Crellin women aren't the only people in Wind Gap who seem to be in need of professional assistance. The little town seethes with spite and anger, the clash between the haves and have-nots little different from any novel about a factory town. In this case, it's a factory farm town: the have-nots are employees of the hog-processing plant owned by Camille’s mother. Her former classmates have settled into the broad ruts carved by their own parents; and even though their children rattle about in the roles defined by Hollywood, there's little doubt that they will find those same ruts as adults. If there's a false note at all to Sharp Objects, it's the conventional depiction of small towns seen through a city-girl's eyes.
What starts by seeming to be just one more run-of-the-mill whodunit (sub-genre "reporter becomes detective") segues sideways into a psychological thriller the first time Camille, narrator, describer her scars holding conversations with her, And it keeps going from there. Of course there's still the bare bones of investigative reporting; interviews with the family of the latest missing girl, prying juicy quotes out of the gorgeous detective sent from Kansas City; but in the end Sharp Objects is never about the mystery - at least not about that mystery.