Karin Slaughter is one of the very few thriller writers whose work I actually look forward to and buy on, or near, (or occasionally before, as bookstores here seem a little befuddled about embargo dates and English-language books) the official publishing date. I wasn’t a big fan of her last one, Pretty Girls, but the one before that, Cop Town, was a pretty damn good exploration of what it was like to be a woman on the police force in 1970s Atlanta. I heartily recommend it. But what originally got me hooked on Slaughter’s work is her second novel, Kisscut.
We meet the main characters in a somewhat unusual location: a rollerskating rink in Grant County, GA, a small dapple of villages of varying quality in the heart of Dixieland, where people eat grits for breakfast and men still tip their hats. Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver is trying to win back his ex-wife, paediatrician and county coroner Sara Linton. She’s not having it, or rather, she would like to be not having it, but he is charming and persistent and though he’s been a jerk, she still loves him in spite of herself. Their rendez-vous is interrupted, first by Sara’s inability to handle herself in rollerskates, then by teenage hysteria: Jenny, a plump, shy and unnasuming girl is outside, pointing a gun at a peer and threatening to shoot him. Jeffrey is called in and tries – and fails – to diffuse the situation. The opening act ends with him shooting and killing the girl. During the post-mortem, Sara discovers evidence of something far more insidious and soon, they are engaged in a full-on hunt for paedophiles in their own, close-knit community.
Kisscut has dead babies, cancer, female genital mutilation and rape all within the first twenty pages or so. It’s that kind of book. It’s almost a shame, because cliches as gruesome as these tend to put some people off, and at the heart of the book there’s a pretty intruiging story about a small, close-knit community where the most terrible secrets are hushed up. The characters are impressive, too: it’s heartbreaking to see the usually confident Jeffrey torn up about being forced to shoot a fourteen year old, and terrifying to realise that a child molester can be, and often is, a respected member of the community. There is also one of Jeffrey’s detective, Lena Adams: still reeling from past trauma (the book is the second one in a series), she is quite clearly not ready to be back on the job and certainly not on a case like this, and watching her screw up both the case and her own life is frustrating and, sadly, entirely realistic.
Let me come out and say it, though: I hate Sara Linton. She’s clearly meant to be the protagonist and our ideal woman; stubborn, compassionate, intelligent and brave, well-liked and respected in the community, but she’s grating in all her saintlike patience and compassion. She’s entirely unlike Lena, who is equally clever but abrasive, impulsive, and too traumatised to function properly. She picks fights for no reason. She puts in a half-arsed attempt at suicide. She panics when one of the victims tries to bond with her, then goes too far in the other direction. She’s continuously in a foul mood. Jeffrey is too involved in his own problems to notice, and so Lena – loath to give up – valiantly struggles on. She’s not particularly likeable but haven’t liked a character in a novel as much as I like Lena in a very long time.
It’s an interesting dilemma, though; finally, we have a book with strong female protagonists (and a weak male one), but one of them is a chronic fuck-up and the other’s the archetype of Every Professional Woman In Thrillers, Ever. The juxtaposition between the two runs deep; Sara is a local from a wealthy, if working-class, background, grew up in a loving family, is well-educated. Lena is an orphan, grew up under the care of her addict uncle, lost her family members to various violent events, never had a chance to get ahead in life; you get a sense that, considering the circumstances, she’s done alright for herself, but nobody – including Lena – seems to feel that way. Little unites these two women, and predictably, they can’t stand each other. What I don’t like is that we’re clearly meant to root for Sarah. I’m team Lena all the way. At least she’s interesting.
As for the book itself, it’s a scary read, cruelly unpredictable and unflinching when it comes to portraying the devastating consequences of sexual abuse (and doing a good job in dispelling some of the myths about it, too). I wouldn’t go as far as to label it an important book, but in all its relentlessness, it does what too few thrillers manage to do: get under your skin, not by its goriness, but by its plausibility.