On a sweltering summer afternoon, medical examiner Sara Linton is called in to examine a suspected suicide at the nearby college. With her very pregnant sister in tow, she sets out to examine the body. But then the sister is stabbed and suicide becomes increasingly less likely. Chief of Police Jeffrey Tolliver – Sara’s on again, off again significant other – struggles to make headway into the case. First and foremost in his crosshairs is his former subordinate, Lena Adams. Now working as campus security, Lena – who is as good at getting herself into trouble as she is getting out of it – behaves suspiciously erratic. Soon, a second body is found.
The book is the third installment in a series of seven, and though it can be read as a standalone, it is more interesting if you’ve read the first two parts. The main characters (most of them, anyway) have depth and they’re pretty fleshed out, but some plot points are never really explained, like the will-they-won’t-they of Sara and Jeffey’s relationship or the animosity between Lena and Jeffrey. This is a good call on Slaughter’s part; to a loyal reader there is little more annoying than endless repetition of previous events.
It’s also very, very gory, from Jeffrey examining an eyeball embedded into the sheetrock to a corpse whose throat hasn’t been slit so much as hacked to pieces. It’s violent in other ways, too, with themes like infant mortality, domestic abuse and – you guessed it – rape.
Rape and sexual assault are sadly common themes in thrillers, though I will say they are rarely employed the way Slaughter uses them here. Lena, who survives a horrific assault in the first book of the series, is still reeling from the after effects and barely coping as it is when she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation, and it’s the trauma that she’s suffered ensures she makes the worst possible decisions for herself. She drinks too much, she lies, and despite her combative behaviour she’s deathly afraid – of the dark, of being touched, of people looking down on her and pitying her. On the one hand, she’s desperate to get back into her old boss’s good graces, yet she hates him with a passion too, because she feels let down by him, and with good reason; Jeffrey, for his part, spends most of the book being mad at Lena for not quietly going back to her old self and keeps wondering “gee, what happened to her?”
It’s heartbreaking and, unfortunately, completely realistic. Lena isn’t always a good person; she carries grudges, she’s rarely honest and she screws up constantly. She’s also brave and clever, and as a character she’s fascinating, but most Slaughter’s fan base hates her at the detriment of Sara, who is far easier to like. One of the complaints I read was the aftermath of Lena’s rape is “too textbook”, like Slaughter had a checklist she wanted to mark off. I wonder why that is a bad thing. Rape, in novels and films, is all too often a plot device to steer the female character into the strong, protective arms of the male protagonist who fixes everything with a hug and a well-aimed blow at the rapist’s genitals. There is no such thing here, no quiet, neat recovery, no white knight; quite the opposite, as she rolls straight into the hands of a predatory abuser with a questionable past. As you watch it unfold, you want to shake some sense into her; it’s frustrating and grotesque and, looking at the statistics, par for the course.
A Faint Cold Fear is not a bad book, on any level. It’s got a decent plot, some great and plenty of good characters, and the mystery isn’t too predictable. But it’s a painful book too, and at times it feels like Slaughter seeing how much shit she can pile onto Lena and still get away with it. Nevertheless, it’s important to show the ugly things of life as they are, not as we want them to be, and A Faint Cold Fear does that like no other.