How could a mother rank her children? Could you rank the stars in the sky? Ranking the novels of incomparable mystery writer Gillian Flynn is similarly futile. But much like Flynn’s protagonists, we’re too stubborn to know what’s good for us.
The order in the below list might change from day to day, depending on what kind of dark thriller we’re most hungry for. Preamble aside, here is our official ranking of Gillian Flynn books, from the great to the truly genius. Read them all, in whatever order you want.
4. The Grownup
The Grownup receives the lowest slot on this list only because it’s too dang short.
Originally published as part of George R.R. Martin’s Rogues anthology in 2014 under the title “What Do You Do?,” it has since been released under a different name and in a standalone volume.
Winner of the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Short Story, The Grownup follows a skeptical, unscrupulous former sex worker who pretends to read auras. After Susan, one of the unnamed protagonist’s rich, eccentric customers, describes horrific paranormal incidents in her home, the aura-reader agrees to visit allegedly-haunted house. Once there, she begins to regret her fraudulent dabbling in the world of the unseen, as she becomes caught in a nightmare with Susan and Susan’s macabre step-son.
The Grownup is the only one of Flynn’s titles yet to be adapted for the screen, although the rights were sold to Universal in 2016.
Related: A Case for Detective Short Stories
3. Dark Places
Libby Day is a sole survivor. Twenty-four years ago, her teenage brother Ben massacred Libby’s mother and other siblings. Seven-year-old Libby survived by slipping out a window into the frigid night—losing digits to frostbite in the process—and eventually testified against Ben.
In the decades since, the Satanism-fueled massacre of the Day family has become an iconic part of true crime history, a source for endless message board debates about Ben’s guilt. Libby has survived off funds raised for her following the crime. But now that they’ve dried up, she reluctantly agrees to make a paid appearance at a true crime convention, and from there is bribed into making contact with Ben for the first time since that bloody winter night nearly a quarter-century ago.
Like Flynn’s other novels, Dark Places is set in both the past and the present, and follows a compelling but challenging woman who has learned to compartmentalize in order to survive. It also offers a dark, savvy commentary on our modern true crime obsession.
Dark Places was adapted into a movie starring Charlize Theron as Libby in 2015.
2. Gone Girl
Gone Girl is arguably Flynn’s magnum opus, and it might be her best known work (certainly, it’s the only book of hers with a title that has also become a verb, as in "to Gone Girl"). Still, it’s not at the top of this list, if only because Sharp Objects manages to be even more incisive and upsetting.
In Gone Girl, everyman Nick returns to his house in Missouri and finds the furniture overturned and his wife Amy missing. Exploring Nick and Amy’s past, as well as the pressures Nick faces from the media in the present, the book reveals how the couple met and why they moved to Missouri after their idyllic early relationship in New York.
Nick is media-savvy and cynical; he knows that most people will think "the husband did it," and he’s careful what he says, both to journalists and to the reader. Neither Nick, nor anyone in Gone Girl, is a reliable narrator.
To say anything more would be to spoil some of the fun, but know that beyond being just a thriller, Gone Girl also offers defining commentary on what it means to be a "likable" woman and a "good" man.
Gone Girl was adapted into a movie starring Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy in 2015. Pike was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the titular role.
1. Sharp Objects
Flynn’s debut! A scathing, tense, and lean novel, Sharp Objects explores generational trauma and the grotesque ways humans often cope with it.
Camille has left her childhood in Wind Gap, Missouri behind to pursue a career in journalism in Chicago. She relies on alcohol and self-harm such as cutting to stabilize herself enough to work, but Camille can’t really hide her pain from her well-meaning boss, Frank Curry.
When two young girls disappear in Wind Gap, Curry sends Camille back to her hometown to get a scoop as a former-local. Her return home pulls Camille back in time, as she relives the death of her younger sister in childhood, and the coldness she experienced from her critical mother, Adora.
When the bodies of the two missing girls are discovered—with all their teeth pulled out—Camille is asked to stay in Wind Gap to provide more coverage. Her prolonged stay forces Camille to reconnect with Adora, and with Adora’s new daughter, Camille’s 13-year-old half-sister Amma.
A page-turner that demands to be read in a single day, Sharp Objects is an atmospheric, enthralling, and truly disturbing mystery, with a twist in its final pages that is all-time terrifying. The book was adapted into a HBO series starring Amy Adams as Camille in 2018.
Featured still from "Sharp Objects" via HBO