Monday, July 30, 2012

Crime in the City: Karin Slaugher's CRIMINAL Takes Fire from the Past

Maybe you caught the great interview with crime fiction author-par-excellence Karin Slaughter today on National Public Radio, part of NPR's traditional "Crime in the City" series. If not, you can read it at the radio website here, or even click the "Listen" button there to hear it, word for word.

It's a great forum for Slaughter, whose relationship with her fiction isn't just through her characters -- it's also with the locations she's chosen: Grant County, Georgia, for one series she writes, and Atlanta for her Will Trent series. CRIMINAL is the latest in the Will Trent books. (The others are Triptych, Fracture, Undone, Broken, Fallen, and Snatched.)

But stop! This is not a guy-focused book, even though the "emotional autopsy" it offers of dyslexic and scrappy investigator Will Trent rips open many of the part-healed wounds on this long-running character. Instead, CRIMINAL rocks back and forth between the 1970s -- when Slaughter's female leads Amanda Wagner  (Will's boss in the "now" of the series) and Wagner's partner Evelyn Mitchell were among the handful of women pioneers in the city's rough, racist, and blatantly sexist police force -- and today, when Amanda's abrupt orders and detours forced on Will suggest she's punishing him.

Or protecting him.

For more than 400 pages, Slaughter spins a two-generation epic of the Atlanta investigators. Her taut narrative paints with a knife tip the look of harrassed and tortured women, then and now. Even the most incidental seeming character, like drug-addicted Lucy in an early chapter, comes through with vivid reality and piercing questions:
Just like that, he dropped Lucy like trash in the street.

Maybe she was trash. Maybe she deserved to be abandoned. Because once the rush wore off, once the highs turned less intense and the lows became almost unbearable, what was there left to Lucy Bennett but a life on the street?
With consummate craft, Slaughter opens a window into Amanda Wagner's past, her naive embrace of police work, her father's near-unbearable pressure to protect her in the force -- yet keeps the present-day female head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation shuttered, mysterious, and nail-bitingly frustrating to Will as he staggers around the edges of a serial murder sequence that he knows far too well -- it matches what he's seen and investigated years before. Matches it exactly. So why won't Amanda Wagner let him work the case?

Ramping the tension further is the question of whether Will's survival from a nightmare infancy and a harsh childhood has room in it for emotional attachment to a young doctor, Sara Linton, who seems to be more easily allowed into his boss's life than his own. Will brings a terrible legacy to the fragile romantic opportunity:
Will Trent had never been alone in someone else's home before unless that person was dead. As with many things in his life, he was aware that this was a trait he shared with a lot of serial killers. Fortunately, Will was an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation so the empty bathrooms he searched and the deserted bedrooms he tossed all fell under the category of intrusions for the greater good.

This revelation didn't help ease his mind as he walked through Sarah Linton's apartment.
Remember those fat novels that took you through generations of family in the Australian Outback? CRIMINAL has just as much emotional resonance -- in only two time periods, forty years ago and now. And you know the endless sexual harrassment faced by officers Rizzoli and Isles in Tess Gerritsen's books and in Patricia Cornwall's forensic epics? CRIMINAL digs deeper by calling up the vicious anti-women stances of "men's work" in the 1970s, when Civil Rights legislation allowed women a way to squeeze into the openings being demanded for men of color.

Most of all, most important, CRIMINAL provides a tense rapid pace, sharp twists of plot, and characters whose hope of redemption depends squarely on whether the crimes taking place can be solved and the criminals successfully brought to justice. Even though the justice might be rough.

I'll be re-reading this one. Karin Slaughter's just raised the bar for pulling the corruption and devastation of the past, into the blossoming of today's violent response. And for showing how it might -- if enough determined and vigilant officers work together -- be stopped.

Book blog note: Watch for some Q&A with Slaughter here, during the week of August 13. If you've read CRIMINAL, add a comment to this post with pertinent questions you've got about the book and the author. If you haven't read it -- you have two weeks in front of you. Ready, set -- read!

1 comment:

Michael Barrett said...

One of the best books she has ever written!