Attorney Leigh Collier is attending a recital at her daughter’s fancy private school when she’s called in by her boss. Andrew Tennant, a wealthy client’s son, stands accuse of aggravated sexual assault and has specifically requested Leigh defend him. It takes Leigh a while, but then she recognises Andrew as the little boy she used to babysit – the little boy whose father she and her sister murdered twenty years earlier. Andrew makes no qualms about letting Leigh know that he knows what she did, and if she doesn’t get him off the hook he threatens to let everyone know what she’s done. With only days to go until the start of the trial, Leigh has to find a way to protect her own life, but also that of her sister Callie.
There is a reason why Karin Slaughter is a standout in the overpopulated thriller genre and why she consistently out-sells many of her fellow writers: she is very good at what she does. Her books aren’t high literature, but they aren’t meant to be. Slaughter’s prose is precise, effective and to the point, and her plots are taut and so tense that reading one of her books is practically a workout. The narrative choices that she makes don’t work for everyone – if you’re looking for a whodunnit-kind of puzzle, look elsewhere – but they are deliberate and when it comes to character building, few writers are her equals (I’ll make an exception for her Will Trent series because Sara Linton is such a wet rag of a character, but that’s a discussion for a different day).
These books aren’t for everyone, though. Slaughter is very graphic and I don’t think she’s ever written a book that doesn’t have rape as a plot point. She’s stated in interviews that this is a deliberate choice, that she wants to highlight how brutal violence against women can be, but the point is kind of undermined – to me, anyway – by the fact that she’s earned millions by writing about it; just once I’d like to see her write something not about rape. To her credit, though, she never minimises rape or the consequences thereof. There are no strong men here who sweep victims off their feet and take care of everything; the women do it themselves and try to move on with their messy lives best they can.
That’s certainly the case here, as well, and though this is by no means the grisliest book Slaughter has written (that dubious honour still goes to Pretty Girls) it’s still a lot to take in. It has its lighter moments as well, though. Leigh’s relationship with her estranged husband Walter is damaged and complicated, but they genuinely care about each other, and Leigh is a devoted mother to their daughter. Her bittersweet bond with her sister Callie is heartbreaking. Callie, addicted to a plethora of drugs after sustaining a serious back injury as a teenager, tries not to bother her sister; Leigh, in turn, is both frustrated by her sister’s inability to stay off the dope and guilt-riddled by what happened twenty years earlier. They care about each other a great deal, though, and their bittersweet bond feels real.
At times, the dialogues get a bit overwrought to the point of being cringey, but the plot is tense and the pace is quick. Andrew makes for an effective villain, the kind of smooth talker that men intuitively like and women steer clear of. Leigh is surprised when her secretary offers to stay with them so she won’t have to be alone in a room with Andrew. Meanwhile, the good-ole-boy judge only sees a promising young man whose life is being ruined by a woman who shouldn’t have gone out or gotten drunk or worn a short skirt. It’s all too familiar. And Covid itself plays a substantial part; people struggle to put on masks and try to keep their distance.
Ultimately, this isn’t a book that will please everyone. It’s a lot, and it’s not exactly a mystery. But sidestepping some minor plot issues and graphic descriptions of rape, it’s a smart, fast-paced thriller with great characters. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.