Ok, so, as shown in the movie, it wasn’t an incredibly easy case to solve (unlike, say, the Sandbrook murders of Broadchurch). Amy knew how to play to the prejudices and expectations of investigators and spin what would at first glance seem a plausible narrative. The operative phrase there being at first glance. Because, with small amounts of basic detective work, it should have become apparent that none of the apparent evidence against Nick actually stacked up.
A couple of quick disclaimers: this is based on Amy’s actions as shown in the film. I watched it the night I wrote this blog as part of the Christmas pizza-and-movie tradition with my sisters, I haven’t actually read the book, so apologies for points I raise that Gillian Flynn does in fact deal with in print. Also, I’m not going to go into the details of whether Amy’s plan was practical or not (such as whether or not she could survive losing enough blood to fake the crime scene). My focus is on the missed opportunities that the detectives investigating Amy’s disappearance had to realise that something was very, very wrong with the story that they were being told.
And another quick thing to mention – Gone Girl is a psychological thriller, not a police procedural or murder mystery. In those genres, the audience needs to trust that the detective is capable of solving the case – they have to be credible and competent. In a psychological thriller, this is less important. The focus is not on the investigation, it’s on the person being manipulated and/or terrorised, the effect this has on them, and their efforts to expose what’s being done to them. For the law enforcement response to be unsympathetic, plodding, even incompetent isn’t a problem in this sense, it’s a part of the story. In the film version, anyway, Gone Girl at least at times tries to present the leading investigator, Detective Boney, as a good detective.
The problem with this approach is that she… kind of isn’t.
Murder is often cited as the leading cause of death among pregnant women, although there are actually only a few studies on this, using data that is now at least twenty years old, so I’m hesitant to claim it as a fact. However, the public, and many investigators, believe it, so I can understand why Amy might fake a pregnancy as part of her disappearance – she’s making herself into the perfect Dead Girl. When Detective Boney informs Nick that Amy was pregnant, my assumption was that the police had learnt this from the toxicology screens that they would have run on her blood as a matter of course – pregnancy hormones show up in a standard forensic screening.
But of course, they can’t have done, because Amy was never pregnant.
Instead, she’s left a jar of urine belonging to her pregnant neighbour for investigators to find, which they duly test and discover pregnancy hormones. But… they would have also run her blood. That’s basic forensic diligence. Amy could have been drugged, or drunk, either of which could provide lines of inquiry, and, of course, she could have been pregnant. In fact, her blood should have been sent for testing on the first day of her disappearance, long before the police found the fake urine.
The discovery of the pregnant neighbour’s urine would have caused the blood to be re-tested, but on learning that the blood had no pregnancy hormones present, the police would have both samples DNA-tested, confirming that although the blood is Amy’s, the urine isn’t. Someone is clearly trying to fake a pregnancy, but as Nick clearly knew nothing about it, it wasn’t for his benefit, and there is no plausible reason for him to fake a pregnancy in his missing wife. This kind of false information is known in British policing as an investigative countermeasure – a deliberate effort to mislead investigators by the offender. Although it doesn’t necessarily suggest that Amy is alive, it’s a pretty obvious sign that someone is trying to frame Nick for her murder.
In fact, neither the blood nor the urine is DNA tested, which would quickly show that they were from different people. I can understand Detective Boney not ordering DNA tests – they’re expensive, a blood-type match to blood found in Amy’s home would be enough for investigators to conclude it was hers, and why would they think the urine wasn’t? But, at the point where Nick begins to suspect that Amy is in fact alive, his lawyers should have both the blood and the urine run for DNA, or demand that the police do. Even if they believe that the pregnancy is genuine, they suspect that Amy faked her death. Understanding how she did it, and who else might be in on it, is going to be central to their defence. But I’ll let that one slide for the cops. That bit of ‘How do we do our jobs again?’ is entirely the fault of his defence team.
The staged crime scene
Upon returning home, Nick finds signs of a struggle in his living room, with the coffee table overturned and shattered. Later, Detective Boney makes the point that any kind of violent activity in the Dunnes’ living room would have knocked a photo on their mantelpiece over, and yet it’s still standing up, suggesting that the crime scene was staged. And yes, we do see Amy re-standing the photo up for that exact purpose; to suggest that the crime scene was staged.
There is, of course, one small problem…
As Boney demonstrates, any sort of violent activity in Nick’s living room would knock the photo over, but it was standing apparently undisturbed when she arrived. So, what she’s arguing is that Nick must have stood it back up after shattering the coffee table. But that makes no sense. Nick is supposedly staging an abduction – he wants the living room to look like there’s been a struggle. Why would he make it look less disturbed by standing a photo back up that was knocked over in the struggle? A detective might argue that he wasn’t thinking straight, he was under stress trying to stage the scene, but a defence lawyer would immediately rebut that this theory relies on Nick being sufficiently out of it to stand the photo back up, but sufficiently with it to notice the photo in the first place.
Any decent investigator should ensure that at least one member of their team is challenging their conclusions and testing their theory. Someone should point out to Boney that the photo being restood doesn’t actually damn Nick at all – it suggests that someone was trying to stage the scene to look like a staged crime scene.
The diary, and the test that never was
In the 1980s, incompetent, lazy, and corrupt British detectives learnt to fear the acronym ESDA – ElectroStatic Document Analysis. This is a fairly simple test which can tell investigators in what order indentations on a page were made, and when, and can read pencil marks through several sheets. ESDA tests helped free the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four by proving that their ‘confessions,’ had been tampered with, and helped acquit sixty people who were convicted by the West Midlands Police Serious Crimes Squad on the basis of tainted evidence. When various forces tried to bring in plastic-backed notebooks in the early 90s to defeat ESDA tests, a public outcry forced them to back down.
It’s a standard test to run on any questioned document, like Amy’s diary. And it would show that, far from being written over a period of seven years as it was purported to be, the indentations were in fact created over a much shorter period, throwing the whole diary into doubt. Far from being a contemporaneous record of abuse and control, the diary was actually written shortly before Amy’s disappearance, which coupled with her faked pregnancy and the staged nature of her crime scene, should have alerted detectives to the fact that much of the evidence they were gathering against Nick was being fabricated for them.
The fact that it was in her handwriting should have at least raised the possibility that it was Amy doing the fabricating and that her whole disappearance might be a fraud.
The garage, and the tip-off
Amy’s story at least partly hinges on financial troubles that she and Nick supposedly have, with Nick running up enormous credit card debts to build a man cave that he can use after her death – debts Amy’s life insurance would pay off. Detective Boney should of course have traced the deliveries early, and easily, to the garage of Nick’s sister Margo, and when Nick denied making the purchases, should have tried to trace his movements at the times the purchases were made. She should fairly easily be able to trace the IP address (or addresses) that they were made from, and match those to a real world location. Presumably Amy is smart enough to realise this and to only make purchases when Nick is in the house, but there may still be ways to cast doubt on who actually made the purchases – if phone records show that Nick was making a phone call when an order was placed, for instance. It doesn’t necessarily rule him out… but it creates a suspicion that someone else, basically Amy, was the one making the purchases.
Either way, Boney should learn that the gifts are being delivered to Margo’s garage within hours of launching her investigation.
She doesn’t, and Amy eventually tips her off about it, phoning in from a motel several hours away but posing as a neighbour.
The police routinely record all calls, but don’t routinely trace them. However, in a case this complex, an anonymous tip should be traced as a matter of course – particularly if Boney intends to use it (as she does) to apply for a warrant. It’s a landline call, so easily traced, and Nick’s defence team would certainly want it traced later to see if it actually came from a neighbour (if not, Boney’s warrant and all evidence obtained as a result of it is tainted).
The trace would alert the police that it was in fact placed from hours down the road, not by a neighbour at all. This is probably the biggest missed opportunity of all, even bigger than not detecting the faked pregnancy – the slightest bit of sceptical police work here would immediately reveal the tip as a sham, and the slightest bit of investigation of it should reveal to Detective Boney that a woman resembling Amy was seen at the motel for several days around the time the call was placed. Any half-decent investigator, even an incredibly slow and plodding one, should now be suspicious that Amy may in fact be alive and manipulating – trying to play up to the expectations of investigators that her husband will have killed her.
Put that together with all the other obviously faked evidence, and the point at which Boney arrests Nick is actually the point at which she should be concluding that she and her team are being manipulated by a devious psychopath. But, like many fictional detectives, she’s failing to do basic investigative work, or to order basic forensic tests on any of her evidence, so that the plot can happen. And, like many criminal masterminds, Amy isn’t so much a diabolical genius as the investigators chasing her are diabolically stupid.
All of which brings us neatly to…
Amy’s ex from high school, who has never got past her, and who has stalked her intermittently. Any half-decent investigator would be keeping Desi in mind as a suspect no matter how much Nick is the likely killer. Especially when he shows up at the Find Amy press conference looking to help.
Killers injecting themselves into the inquiry is something police know to watch out for.
Desi’s movements in the hours and days before Amy’s disappearance should be traced (if only because Nick’s defence team will certainly alight on him as a plausible alternative suspect), and both his house and lake house should be searched – or, at least, the police should ask to search them, and should put surveillance on him if he refuses. Even if Nick is the prime suspect, Desi still needs to be eliminated from police enquiries.
The more so when any basic forensic testing would clearly show that the evidence against Nick is fabricated.
By the time Amy reaches out to Desi, the police should have concluded that either a) Desi has abducted Amy and framed Nick or b) Amy has faked her death and framed Nick. But either way, Desi should be the subject of intensive surveillance. The second Amy appears, the surveillance officers should move in and arrest her.
But since we’ve long since established that Detective Boney is not a good detective, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Amy sees Nick’s plea for her to return, decides that he’s the one she wants after all, and plans to murder Desi and fake her abduction.
Gee, detective, you reckon we should run some tests to see if Desi was actually at Amy’s house?
Or… I don’t know, try and account for his whereabouts on the day of her disappearance now?
The answer, of course, is no. Detective Boney doesn’t believe in forensic evidence, or investigative work – she’ll build her cases on gut instinct and gut instinct alone, damn it! By now belatedly suspicious of Amy’s story, she tries to question her but is swiftly shut down by the FBI, who have taken over the case and now believe Amy’s story (having apparently not done any forensic work of their own, either). Seriously, I find it hard to believe that the movements of a rich guy like Desi can’t be traced enough to show that he couldn’t possibly have been in North Carthage when Amy alleges that she was abducted – or that the lack of any trace of him in Amy’s house wouldn’t arouse suspicion. In the violent struggle that apparently took place, he left none of his DNA behind? Not a single hair came loose (humans lose on average at least three per hour)?
And the medical evidence should also be casting all kinds of doubt on Amy’s story. Neither Detective Boney nor the FBI have seemed interested in exploring whether Amy was drugged by testing her blood, so they haven’t realised her pregnancy was faked. But the doctors should surely be able to tell that she isn’t pregnant, and hasn’t miscarried. Or suffered a traumatic head wound that nearly caused her to bleed to death. Yes, Amy fakes rape and sodomy injuries, but the doctors would swiftly spot that these are recent, and few – not consistent with being attacked for weeks.
They should also be able to tell that the wounds are actually self-inflicted.
However sympathetic the investigators may be to Amy, she’s still killed a man, and that demands a thorough investigation. In fact, had they done their jobs with any kind of competence, by this point they’d be assuming that everything she said was a lie.
They should also find CCTV footage that shows Amy arriving at Desi’s lake house weeks after he supposedly abducted her. Where was he keeping her in between time?
‘At his regular house, you say? Then why could we find no forensic evidence of your presence at all? No, I don’t think it was cleaned. We found traces of Desi everywhere.’
There isn’t anything that would immediately say to Detective Boney and the FBI that Amy actually murdered Desi in cold blood when her plan to frame her husband for her murder went awry. But even the slightest of checks of her story would have shown that it didn’t add up.
And they should have suspected that Amy was alive and playing them fairly quickly. Certainly after her fake tip-off.
Does any of this matter? Probably not to the story. Gone Girl is a psychological thriller, not a police procedural, and American cops can be notoriously sloppy. All of the forensic tests I’ve mentioned would be done as standard by British cops, but a rural American detective might well simply accept evidence that fit her theory at face value and do nothing to challenge it. It matters if you think the intent was to present Detective Boney as a good cop (she really, really isn’t), but ultimately this story isn’t about the investigation into Amy’s disappearance. It’s about the secrets and lies and hatreds that grow within a marriage, the ways in which a psychopathic liar can manipulate people, the ways in which men can be either selfish and uncaring, or controlling and pervy, and the ways in which an overlooked, overachieving wife can get her revenge.
As that, it certainly succeeds. Amy is as cold-hearted a manipulator as any you’ll come across in fiction. But, like many apparently brilliant criminal geniuses, she may be the smartest person in the room – but that’s only because the rest of the room is as thick as two short planks. She isn’t brilliant; everyone around her is rather stupid and generally incapable of doing their jobs with even basic levels of competence.
It’s the problem with trying to write that type of character – how to make them brilliant without making everyone around them a complete moron. In the film, at least, Gone Girl doesn’t really succeed. Amy’s deceptions should have been exposed fairly easily. They weren’t, because the detectives chasing her didn’t have the first clue how to detect.
I don’t think she’d ever have got this one past Horatio Caine and CSI:Miami, put it that way.
If you want to see my views on a supposedly capable British detective who also turned into a complete idiot, in his case in the second season of his TV show, head to https://attemptedmurder.uk/2018/06/03/broadchurch-season-2-how-to-spoil-a-good-thing/ for my views on the second season of Broadchurch.
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Yeah, you talk a good game. But can you actually write?’ then please check out my short stories here: https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/. Go on, see if I can actually write anything myself, instead of just criticise the noble efforts of others. Now come shameless plugs…
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