I really like Karin Slaughter. I’m not generally a thriller reader, but I make an exception for her books. Every year, I eagerly await her next novel, whether it’s a standalone or a new instalment of her series. She has a nice turn of phrase and her work, especially the earlier stuff, has traces of southern gothic running through it. She’s no Faulkner but hell, if I wanted Faulkner I’d read Faulkner. I read Slaughter because it’s fun. Gory, gruesome, over-the-top fun. Cop Town was one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read and the rest is soapy but addictive. I’ve been reading her books for a decade and a half now; I want to know what happens to Lena, Faith, Will, Jeffrey, and all the others.
But I think the love affair might be over.
First of all – normally, at this point, I’d give a summary, but unless you’ve read at least two or three earlier instalments there’s no point in reading this book. On the one hand that’s a relief – no endless exposition of stuff I already knew – but on the other it reads more like soppy romance than like a detective novel. In brief: pathologist Sara Linton is dating GBI agent Will Trent. They find a warehouse full of blood and a gun belonging to Will’s batshit semi-ex wife Angie. It’s a race against the clock and yada yada yada. You get the point. There’s also a subplot about an NBA basketballer and a rape case because like everyone else, Slaughter has read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, but it’s more of an afterthought.
The glaring problem here is character development. Slaughter is usually pretty good with characters and you’d think that after a dozen books she’d have fleshed them out, but they appear to be almost regressing. Will used to be an oddball who used his idiosyncrasies to his advantage and Sara used to be a caring professional who never let people step over her boundaries; in this book, they both appear to have de-evolved into blubbering molluscs. Sara blames Will for everything under the sun for reasons still unclear to me; rather than either kicking him out or accepting he might still be a little upset about the potential death of the woman he’s been with since childhood, she spends the entire book lifelessly flopping around in a shallow pool of self-pity, spinelessly lamenting all that has happened to her (never mind that she’s spent entire earlier novels berating people for the exact same thing). Will, meanwhile, has lost the calculating intelligence he used to have and is now just a socially akward chicken flapping around town with no clear purpose. Both Faith, his hilariously self-deprecating partner, and Amanda, his Helen Mirrenesque-boss, used to be amusingly no-nonsense and now spend their day fussing over Will and fawning over Sara. Angie, meanwhile, has gone from traumatised but spirited to full-on evil. It says a lot about the book that I kept rooting for her.
Because that is my main problem here: I hate Sara Linton. I’ve never liked the character. She’s too much of a cliché, every minor imperfection a cutesy touch meant to be endearing, admired by all who meet her, at first for her beauty and later for her intelligence and morals. I’m obviously meant to root for her. Slaughter chooses to do this by juxtaposing her with other women, women who are nothing like Sara and do not like her and, therefore, invariably end up on the wrong side. First, there was Lena Adams and now, there is Angie. The equation is simple: if they like Sara, they’re good. If not, they’re bad and bad things will keep happening to them. Either they cave in or they lose, even though, as characters, they are more powerful than Sara, who is a mere variation on Kay Scarpetta, Temperance Brennan, or any other women in fictional forensics. It’s not the best strategy to get me to like her, considering the fact that both Angie and Lena are far more interesting characters because of their flaws and not in spite of them.
I’d say I’d give up on Slaughter, but I haven’t yet. I’ll probably buy her books next year, and the year after that. Her standalones are excellent. I haven’t given up hope entirely. I just really, really hope the character assassination is going to stop.