Allow me to give you a brief summary of the plot of THE SILENT WIFE: it’s pretty much rapey rapey stabby stabby, blood, guts, gore galore. It’s that kind of book. If you can get past that (and if you can’t, I won’t hold it against you) there’s decent writing and rounded characters, a bit of character assassination, a couple of plot holes and a whole lotta cops being unprofessional.
In The Silent Wife, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents Will Trent and Faith Mitchell and forensic examiner Sara Linton are called into investigate the murder of an inmate during a prison riot. One of the prisoners says he has information about who killed the inmate. In exchange, he wants his own case to be reopened, claiming he’s the victim or a corrupt police investigation. The culprits? Jeffrey Tolliver, Sara’s late husband, and his subordinate Lena Adams, whom Sara holds responsible for Jeffrey’s death.
Needless to say there’s a ton of backstory here, all of which is fascinating if you’ve read the rest of the series and, presumably, somewhat befuddling and tedious if you haven’t. The main problem with The Silent Wife is that it doesn’t really hold up as a mystery. The initial murder of the prison inmate is only addressed in the beginning but it’s never solved, and nobody seems to care. The way the story is set up makes it pretty clear who the killer is about halfway through the book; I’m no genius in figuring these things out but I got it pretty much straightaway. Then there’s Lena; quite a lot is made of her involvement initially but after Will and Faith go and talk to her and it doesn’t go well they basically come to the conclusion that they’re not going to work with her anymore because she’s mean, or something, and then they forget all about her.
In fact, the whole Lena subplot annoys me to no end. Lena is a great character but a lot of Karin Slaughter’s fan base hates her with a passion. I don’t; I love her because she’s fascinating and resilient. Lena’s a screwup. She carries grudges. She lies and she lashes out. She goes through a lot as the series progresses, from the death of her loved ones to a violent rape to domestic abuse, kidnapping, torture – you name it and it’s happened to her. She’s meant to juxtapose Sara – kind, polite, well-educated, respected – which would be fine except in situations of Lena vs Sara it’s inevitably Sara’s side everyone picks whereas if anyone manages to overcome a heap of shit, it’s Lena. Sara is commended for things that are inevitably held against Lena. Meanwhile, nobody seems to notice that Lena is also clever, competent (she’s great at getting people to talk, both victims and suspects), brave, and compassionate. Nobody seems to care or notice except for Jeffrey, and he’s just about the worst boss ever. He has a strange sort of father-daughter thing going on with Lena; she’s an orphan and he doesn’t have any children. Neither of them seems aware of it but Lena’s entirely dependent on Jeffrey’s many mood swings and Jeffrey’s response to her habitual screwups is to promote her, for some reason, and his response to her PTSD (from, y’know, all the shit she goes through) is to whine about why-won’t-she-go-back-to-normal. It doesn’t compute; in previous installments we kept reading about how Lena, at the very least, had the makings of a good cop. Here all we see is a corrupt bitch. I’d say it sucks because I like Lena but it’s just weird because it doesn’t line up with the rest of the arc.
Sara, meanwhile, is fiction’s equivalent of a Rorschach test: you see what you want to see. She’s either a saint or an arrogant, humourless piece of work. She spends most of her married life with Jeffrey fighting about stuff, mostly Lena, whom she doesn’t trust, and her relationship with Will is similarly fraught because Sara is privileged and doesn’t understand how people with a less fortunate background tick. Being in a relationship with Sara seems like a lot of work with little trade off.
In fact, the main problem with Sara is that we keep being told how great she is, but we never see it. Sure, she’s competent, but her kindness comes off as condescension and for a pediatrician she’s not very emphathic. Yet everyone seems to love her and that leads to the next problem in this book: everyone being unprofessional, from Faith telling Will she’s dead set on nailing Lena to the wall because “I’m friends with Sara and my friend’s enemies are my enemies” to Amanda, her boss, insisting that evidence and procedures are for the weak and enfeebled. Apparently the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good bitch fight. Next, they seem surprised when Lena doesn’t willingly give up evidence that could potentially incriminate her (the fact that she was a uniform cop taking orders from Sara’s husband is kind of disregarded there because it’s Lena they all hate). When she asks if this is a new attempt by Sara to ruin her career (it is) they seem offended for some reason, and when Lena makes a crack about Sara’s magic fly trap vagina, Will almost shoots her. That’s not a euphemism: Will, supposedly a levelheaded professional with tons of experience, nearly shoots the only living witness to the case he’s meant to investigate because she’s mean about his girlfriend who’s trying to ruin her life, and nobody bats an eye, not even Amanda, Will’s boss, who seems to have forgotten she offered Lena a job once. I guess they’ve all been sucked in by Sara’s magic vagina too.
In the end, it hardly matters. Despite the above, I like Karin Slaughter’s books. She’s a competent writer. Some of her books (Kisscut, Cop Town, The Good Daughter) are some of my favourite thrillers ever, and her series – this is either the 10th or the 16th installment in the series, depending on how you count – is pure, adrenaline-fuelled popcorn. And while she is one of the worst perpetrators when it comes to overusing rape as a plot device, she tackles the subject with as much tact as I’ve ever seen. The characters, apart from Sara, are compelling: Lena’s my favourite but Will, smart but damaged and insecure, and hilariously dry Faith are good too. Amanda, Will and Faith’s boss, is a hoot. I loved last year’s entry, The Last Widow, one of the few installments where I actually liked Sara. This one, though, is one of the weaker entries in the series. I read it. I enjoyed it for the popcorn factor. It’s fun (if way too gory) and revisiting all these characters we haven’t heard from in a while is pretty satisfying. But the plot is full of holes and loose ends and, worse, reading a book in which the cops are all incompetent or corrupt, in this day and age is more than a little painful.
And please, ms. Slaughter, give Lena a bit of credit. She deserves it. If only for the spot-on magic flytrap vagina crack.