On a chilly May day in Chicago, journalist Camille Preaker works on a “limp[ly] evil” story about four children who were found locked in a room on the South Side of Chicago, forgotten and abandoned by their crackhead mother. Camille’s boss Frank Curry approaches her desk and tells her to come by his office when she’s finished.
Before the “story” at the heart of the novel even begins, Gillian Flynn opens with a glimpse of the protagonist, Camille Preaker, doing painstaking reporting on a story about evil inflicted upon children by their mother—foreshadowing the novel’s central preoccupation.
Camille files her article and then heads up to Curry’s office on the third floor of the Daily Post, the fourth-largest newspaper in Chicago. Curry asks Camille what she knows about the town of Wind Gap, Missouri—her hometown—and Camille begins “hustling for [her] facts.” She states that it’s a town of about two thousand people, and that its main industry is hog butchering. Everyone who lives there, Camille states, is either “old money [or] trash.” When Curry asks Camille which she is, she cheekily answers that she’s “trash from old money.” Curry asks Camille “what the hell is going on” there, but Camille isn’t sure what he means. Curry asks if Camille has talked to her mother and stepfather lately, and she admits that she hasn’t.
This passage sets up the fact that Camille has intentionally sought both physical and emotional distance from her hometown and her family. She is so removed from both the place and its people that she doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on there.
Curry reveals that last August, a little girl was strangled in Wind Gap. Camille nods as if this is old information, but in reality, she hasn’t heard it before—she finds it “curious” that her mother never mentioned it. Curry tells Camille that yet another little girl has gone missing, and orders Camille to “drive down there and get [him] the story.” Camille instantly balks, begging to stay in Chicago, but Curry worries that their second-rate newspaper will always get “slammed out of” big local stories—he wants something fresh, something new, something no one else will be reporting on.
Camille’s clear desire to avoid returning to her hometown at any cost is made plain in this scene—as is the fact that her relationship with her mother is full of both distance and suspicion.
Sensing Camille’s abject fear, Curry tells her that if she doesn’t think she can return to Wind Gap, she shouldn’t—but advises her that the trip might be a good opportunity both to get a “damn good story” and “flush some stuff out” in the meantime. Camille gets up and heads home to pack.
This passage shows that Curry seems to know enough about Camille’s past to realize how difficult a return home will be for her—but his confidence in both her reporting skills and her inner fortitude is strong enough that he believes a trip back to Wind Gap could be successful and even healing.
Camille has no pets or plants to worry about while she’s gone. She stuffs five days’ worth of clothes into a duffel bag, and as she locks up her apartment, she looks around at its spare, cheap, uninspired furniture. The only decoration is a framed photograph of Camille’s deceased younger sister, Marian, when she was about seven years old.
This passage, which allows readers a glimpse into Camille’s sad apartment, shows that she has very few attachments and no interest in sustaining even the simplest of living things. Camille also has a profound attachment to the past, evidenced by the presence of a portrait of Marian, even in the absence of any other décor or homey touches.
In a Missouri motel, Camille stuffs a towel around the shower drain and sits down in the filthy stall for a “bath.” When she’s done, she drinks bourbon and frets about what will happen when she arrives at her mother’s place tomorrow. Curry has given Camille no budget for the article other than one night’s stay in a motel, and at the thought of staying with her falsely polite, overbearing mother, Camille becomes anxious. She drinks herself to sleep, grateful for one last night on her own.
This scene shows that Camille is a heavy drinker, and an adherent to ritual even when the circumstances aren’t ideal. She doesn’t care much for hygiene or wellness—in addition to the lack of décor or plants in her home, this trait serves to point out the ways in which Camille has rejected many traditional trappings of femininity.
In the morning, Camille gets back into her car and continues south through the “ominously flat” and boring scenery of southern Missouri. When she arrives in Wind Gap, she heads straight to the police station to ask some questions. As she drives down Main Street, she spots the sad, spare small businesses that occupy its storefronts and marvels at how empty the sidewalks are.
Camille’s surprise at discovering Main Street nearly empty indicates that something troubling is going on in Wind Gap—though a sleepy town to begin with, the total scarcity of people signals just how dire the situation there is.
Camille parks her car, gets out, and peels a MISSING poster off of a nearby lamppost. The homemade flyer shows “a dark-eyed girl with a feral grin:” it is the missing girl, Natalie Keene, who is ten years old. Camille prays that when she walks into the police station, they’ll tell her that Natalie has been found, and she’ll be able to turn around and head home.
The picture of Natalie Keene and her “feral” grin establish the little girl, right off the bat, as someone who, like Camille, is not a participant in traditional modes of femininity.
When she walks into the station, however, Camille is informed that most of the town is out in the woods, searching the forest for Natalie. Camille sits and waits for Chief Bill Vickery to return from his lunch break, and when he does, he begrudgingly agrees to talk to her, despite hating the media. Bill Vickery is shocked that a reporter from all the way up in Chicago has heard about the other little girl’s death and Natalie’s disappearance—he doesn’t want the story to “get out.” Camille argues that some public awareness could be good and could even bring new information to light. When Vickery still seems loath to share any details with Camille, she mentions that she herself is from Wind Gap.
This scene shows the private struggle Camille is dealing with as she returns to Wind Gap. She has spent so long denying her attachment to the place and trying to forge ahead in life on her own—but when she returns here, she knows that she is only as good as her family’s name. Luckily for Camille, her family has an important place in Wind Gap’s past, present, and future.
Vickery asks Camille her name, and Camille introduces herself—then adds that her mother is Adora Crellin. Vickery admits he knows Adora and her husband, Alan—Camille knows that everyone in Wind Gap knows them, as they have “real money,” something uncommon in the small town. Despite knowing Camille is from Wind Gap—and is part of one of its wealthiest families—Vickery still declines to give her any information other than an X on a photocopied map of town indicating where the murdered girl’s body was found last year, and some basic facts about her murder.
Vickery proves himself to be one of the few people in town not swayed by Adora’s influence. Camille leaves her meeting with him still feeling, in many ways, in the dark.
Ann Nash was found dead at only nine years old on August 27th of last year in a creek in the middle of the woods—she went missing the night before, and was found, strangled with a clothesline looped around her neck, at five the next morning. As Camille goes over these small details, she marvels at how it took her a full hour of questioning to get this little bit of information from the Chief.
Confronted with the grisly details of Ann’s murder, Camille understands a bit better why Vickery doesn’t like discussing it.
Camille decides to join the search party, and heads out to the woods. At the search site, four blonde girls are sitting on a picnic blanket—the prettiest of them all, a girl barely in her teens, asks Camille what she’s doing “here.” Camille thinks that the girl looks familiar, and assumes she is the child of one of her high school friends: the girl has a round, childish face, but also the large, full breasts of a grown woman.
This passage marks the first encounter Camille has with a young girl from Wind Gap—an encounter which no doubt forces Camille to remember her own girlhood here. As Camille observes how the girl’s body is a tug-of-war between girlhood and womanhood, Flynn shows Camille up against someone who has no say in her own femininity: the young girl’s form announces it to the world for her.
Camille walks past the girls into the woods, towards the sound of people’s voices calling for Natalie. When Camille catches up with the search party, she begins walking alongside a man and asking him some questions about his thoughts on Natalie’s disappearance. He believes that her being missing isn’t connected to Ann’s murder—a murder he believes “some loony” passing through town must have committed. When Camille asks the man why he believes that, the man reveals that the killer—whomever he was—pulled out all of Ann’s teeth.
The fact that Camille must encounter the most disturbing detail of Ann’s death—the fact that all of her teeth were pulled—by word of mouth from a Wind Gap citizen rather than from the police contributes to the already-heavy atmosphere of secrets, lies, and cover-ups surrounding her return to her hometown.
After an hour with the search party, Camille splits off and heads to the spot where Ann’s body was found last year. At the edge of the creek, Camille reaches into the water and remembers swimming in the stream as a young girl. She and her friends would occasionally see older boys, “equipped with shotguns and stolen beer” who had “bloody pieces of meat” strapped to their belts, tromping through the woods—these boys “compelled” the young Camille.
Even as a young girl, Camille was intrigued and “compelled” by the brazenness—and indeed even the outright violence—of masculinity much more than she ever was by the careful, controlled world of womanhood.
When she was about twelve, Camille once wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed and found ribbons of meat dangling from the ceiling, waiting to be dried for jerky. The floor was covered in blood, and the walls were plastered with photographs of naked women in compromising—and frightening—sexual positions. That evening, after returning home from the shed, the young Camille masturbated for the first time, “panting and sick.”
By closing out the first chapter on this strange, voyeuristic, and slightly upsetting note, Flynn establishes both that Camille’s past memories and perhaps present desires are dark and rooted in a place which rejects and reviles femininity and finds a “sick” kind of comfort, or even eroticism, in patterns of abuse and victimization.