Here’s my problem with The Last Widow: I wish I could say it was implausible and over the top, and ten years ago it would have been, but unfortunately, it’s not, and that makes it a scary and gripping read, but not a particularly comforting one. There’s nothing in this book that hasn’t happened before, and it’s going to happen again, sooner rather than later. We all know it. Karin Slaughter certainly does; there is a bleak and cynical current that flows through this book; no heroism, but an accurate sense of doom.
On a hot summer’s day in Atlanta, medical examiner Sara Linton bickers with her mother as they prepare lunch; outside, Sara’s significant other, GBI agent Will Trent, is mowing the lawn. Two bombs go off on the Emory campus. Both Sara and Will speed off to help out; before long, Sara’s been kidnapped and Will is forced to go undercover with a gang of white supremacists, who have also abducted Michelle Spivey, a microbiologist who works for the CDC. They’re obviously up to something nefarious, but the question is when, where and how.
The Last Widow is a bit of a departure for Slaughter from her normal work, which is usually more of a detective novel rather than a fast-paced, action-packed thriller. Which isn’t to say she isn’t good at it; she is. The Last Widow is relentlessly taut and visceral, almost from the beginning. Slaughter has never been one to cater to the pearl-clutching crowd and the verb splatter frequently appears in all of her books, but this time she doesn’t dwell on them. She doesn’t need to; the subject matter is horrible enough as it is.
Something Slaughter also does well is flesh out her characters. I’m not a big fan of Sara Linton; the last book she appeared in she was reduced to a blubbering, hyperemotional harpy, and the perfect mix of brains, beauty, compassion and endearing quirks was grating long before that. Here, though, Sara is pragmatic but more relatable. She’s scared. She panics. She does stupid stuff occasionally. Locked in a makeshift cell, bored and terrified in equal measures, she tries – and fails – to remember the lyrics to Baby Got Back. Similarly, Will, socially awkward but a good undercover agent, is equal parts desperate and gung-ho. He’s not a vapid, calculating killing machine; he’s a guy who wants his loved one back. There’s also Faith, Will’s hilariously pragmatic partner, and Amanda, his mildly sadistic but ultimately motherly boss; they’re effectively deployed here, and my only wish is that they’d stop mothering over Will like he’s a teenager instead of a grown man.
What really makes the book, though, is not just the theme – there are plenty of books about white supremacists out there – but the way Slaughter tackles it, highlighting the futility of the movement, the idiotic and vapid pseudo-intellectualism behind it, the cowardice of the upper echelons who employ disaffected young men as cannon fodder. If the cult leader’s stale talking points and the images of white men in cargo shorts and polos screaming blood and soil seem trite and cliché, well, it’s because they are, but not because they’re not realistic. And rape, which is reduced to an overrepresented plot device in so many novels, isn’t treated as such here; it’s not diminished to something vaguely uncomfortable, something which a protective male character will sweep under the rug with a hug and a few kind words, but something harrowing that leaves a venomous trail throughout victims’ lives for decades after. It’s not pleasant – and Slaughter should probably lay off writing about it so much – but it’s accurate and confrontational.
I was originally going to give this novel four stars, but fuck it, I’m tacking on another one at the end just for Slaughter’s scathing condemnation of both-siderism near the end of the novel. : “Worse, though not entirely unexpected, was that all news media twisted and turned to show ‘the other side’, as if racism ought to be tolerated and understood rather than condemned and rejected… Nazis in suits and ties appeared next to… experts in the field of hate crimes, like they had the same right of speech. Apparently their heated debates had worked miracles for the ratings.”
There’s no both-siderism in this book. There’s good guys and there’s bad guys and it’s very clear who’s who. For once, that’s refreshing.
Note: this book is not yet out in the US or the UK. I read the novel in Dutch; the quote at the end is my own translation. YMMV.