By A.J. Colucci
When it comes to murder, Karin Slaughter pulls no punches. The internationally acclaimed author of thirteen novels believes crime fiction writers have an obligation to tell the truth. “Even though we’re writing fiction, we need to remember that the crimes we write about happen to real people every single day. We need to tread carefully. We need to honor their stories.” As a result, her novels are not for the faint of heart. The crimes are brutally realistic, the terror is genuine and the tension between the characters is palpable.
With a name like Slaughter, perhaps it was fate. Her two hugely popular series, Will Trent and Grant County, have sold more than thirty million books that have been translated into thirty-two languages. Her latest novel, COP TOWN, takes readers back to 1974 in downtown Atlanta—where a cop killer known as “The Shooter” is on the loose. Kate Murphy is a new police officer thrown into the deep end her first day on the job, wondering if it will be her last. The women of the Atlanta police department are never quite sure who their worst enemies are—the criminals on the street or their fellow cops who think that the job is no place for a woman. As the entire force hunts for the killer, it quickly becomes clear that protect and serve applies only to a chosen few.
Painting an accurate portrait of the 1970s took a lot of research, and Slaughter paints it well, especially the unabashed sexism, racism, and homophobia that existed in law enforcement. Just as she exposes the harsh reality of a brutal murder, Slaughter writes with stunning acuity about the ugliness of a police force that’s openly hostile to women and, as Kirkus notes, “drives her point home like a knife to the eye.”
Much of her research was based on conversations with a group of retired female police officers. “They are amazing ladies, and the stories they tell are both horrific and hilarious. I spent hours with them talking about the good ol’ days, and we laughed and laughed, and then I got home and read through my notes and thought, ‘Holy crap, this was just awful.’ It’s amazing what they put up with back then, and continue to put up with, because some things haven’t changed all that much.” Slaughter remarked that anyone applying to be a police officer has to take a lie detector test. “Back then, women were asked if they were virgins, how many men they’d had sex with, what type of sex they had engaged in. And while this was wrong—not just because the men weren’t asked—no one complained about it.”
It was into this atmosphere that Slaughter thrusts Kate Murphy and Maggie Lawson, two female police officers in COP TOWN. Kate is new on the force and eager to shed her privileged background by strapping on a gun, but she is unprepared for the hazing and nearly quits over the abuse she faces, not only from criminals but from men in her own department. In one particularly revolting scene, Kate and her male partner interrogate a pimp named Romeo—a character who defines the word vile. For Kate, it quickly turns into a kind of verbal rape, but for her male partner, it is both amusing and proof that women are not meant to be cops. Likewise, Maggie has been at the job for years and comes from a family of cops, yet the constant barriers she faces while tracking down a cop killer is taking its toll and “knowing her place” means doing a lot of the legwork on the sly.
“I think Kate and Maggie also have the whole Southern Woman thing going on,” Slaughter said. “Every female cop from the South I’ve ever spoken with will tell you one of the hardest things they had to learn at the academy was to not preface complaints with an apology—‘Waiter, I’m sorry to bother you, but there’s a sewing needle in my sandwich.’ We’re trained from a very young age to soften our comments because that’s what ladies do. My grandmother used to say that nobody likes an angry woman, and I think that’s still true.”
Slaughter is quick to add the other problem no one talks about. “Women can be awful to other women. If we can frame this in relation to COP TOWN, I think the women are just as horrible to Kate on her first day as are the men. I love her line, ‘It’s like Seneca Falls without all the support and camaraderie.’ ”
From an author’s point of view, Slaughter sees another side of sexism. Many of her books, layered with gritty characters, raw dialogue, and a few body parts, have prompted some readers to praise her for writing like a man. “That’s one thing that I think has not changed, which is male characteristics equal good, female characteristics equal bad. There is a tendency among both men and women to think when a man says something, it’s more valid. Which is why Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby are writing touching stories about complicated family dynamics and Jodi Picoult is writing chick-lit.”
Slaughter says that every year when the Edgars and ThrillerFest roll around, “I make some pithy comment about how painfully few women are nominated in the ‘big’ categories and every year, my comments are met with crickets. The funny thing is, women vote more than men. So, I’m not bashing men for not stepping up. I’m asking why women have such a hard time supporting other women.”
Still, compared to 1974, life has improved for women, right? Yes and no, Slaughter says. “I think it’s hard to quantify the steps, forward or back. Women have unprecedented power in the U.S., yet statistically, one in five is likely to experience sexual assault in our lifetime. Is that progress? We have higher representation in government now than at any time previous, but we’re still well below fifty percent. Is that progress?”
Slaughter notes that the word “feminist” has become misunderstood, conflated with hating men, yet the basic principles of equality benefit everyone. “Many women are afraid of even using the word ‘feminism,’ which has become a shaming device among both women and men. Look, every man does not want to be president, or work ninety-hour weeks, or have a heart attack at fifty because their job is too stressful. Some men want to spend time with their kids. They want to be home to put them to bed. They want to be with their wives. They want a life outside their jobs. Feminism allows that to happen, because there are women out there who want to be president, who want to work the hard jobs and get the promotion. This is called equality, and it benefits men as well as women.”
One fellow author who Slaughter says really gets this idea is Lee Child. “He writes amazingly strong female characters. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack Reacher—or shoulder-to-head, since he’s so tall. And in person, Lee is one of the most supportive and generous people I know. He’s not threatened by successful women in our field. He’s ecstatic about it because he’s got a new author to read. That’s feminism in a nutshell.”
Sexism aside, COP TOWN draws a remarkably accurate picture of day-to-day life in the seventies. From percolators, miniskirts, and pantyhose to Carol King, All in the Family, and a six-pack of Schlitz, she describes the decade with vivid clarity, yet never gets bogged down with superfluous details. If you grew up in the seventies, the retro kitchen in the opening of the book takes you right back to childhood:
Even though it was winter, the kitchen was humid. No matter the time of year, it always smelled of fried bacon and cigarette smoke. The source of both stood at the stove. Delia’s back was bent as she filled the percolator. When Maggie thought of her mother, she thought of this kitchen—the faded avocado-green appliances, the cracked yellow linoleum on the floor, the burned, black ridges on the laminate countertop where her father rested his cigarette.
Slaughter believes striking a balance is key to good descriptive writing. “A long time ago, someone told me that the difference between an artist and a painter is an artist knows when to stop painting,” she said. “When I write a particularly descriptive scene like the one that opens in the Lawson’s kitchen, I have to be brutal with my edits and make sure I’m not getting bogged down in details that slow the story. This was a delicate balance, because the prologue is very fast-paced with short, sharp sentences, so I had to slow things down in chapter one, but not make them too slow. I think with that particular scene, I cut out about half of the details, but that wasn’t enough, so I had to go back and cut again. It was hard to do because I love the things that I cut, but that’s just how it has to be. Especially with a piece like COP TOWN, there’s a temptation to say, ‘look at all my research!’ I had to hold that back because every single word has to move the story. I’m not writing My Navel, Myself. This is a thriller, and while I love all the social issues, at the end of the day it still has to thrill.”
And thrill it does. It’s something Slaughter learned at an early age, reading stacks of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. But her training ground for shocking plots twists and devious characters came years later, reading true crime stories. “I think Ann Rule taught me where to hide the bodies. What I love about Rule is that she focuses on everyone in the community—the neighbors, the victims, the families, the cops working to solve the case. It’s not just about the killer. She doesn’t go for the shock value. She understands that these people are human beings who had something awful happen to them. There’s no titillation. That’s an important lesson for any author, but especially crime writers. Traditionally, crime fiction has been at the forefront of discussing what ails society. We need to remember that we have an obligation to remain true to our roots.”
So what’s next for Karin Slaughter? Certainly, she won’t stop writing the Will Trent and Grant County series (her fans wouldn’t have it) and she hopes readers will enjoy Kate and Maggie enough to turn COP TOWN into a series as well (is there any doubt?). In her spare time, she will continue working on her Save the Libraries campaign, which so far has raised over $250,000. “Publishers are doing quite a lot. My publisher, Random House, has sent me on many library tours over the years. Personal philanthropy at the corporate level has been amazing.” She says the biggest threat to libraries is the same threat to everything good in our society: “Apathy. We all care about libraries, but the passion to fight for them doesn’t seem to be there.” She recommends small steps individuals can take. “Write to your local representative and tell them how important the library is to your community, donate money and time to the Friends of the Library. Every dollar spent on a library returns five dollars to the community. For many kids in rural areas, the library offers their only access to computers and the Internet. It’s the backbone of our education system. If you take it away, then society cannot stand. I worry that people will realize this only after the systems have fallen.”
Karin Slaughter is the #1 internationally bestselling author of several novels, including the Grant County series. A long-time resident of Atlanta, she splits her time between the kitchen and the living room.
To learn more about Karin, please visit her website.
Photography Credit: Alison Rosa
Visit AJ at: www.ajcolucci.com