Tackling a Story That’s a Little Too Timely
[Note: The following piece contains spoilers for the Grant County series, which concluded in 2007 with Beyond Reach.]
It’s been 13 years since readers first met Will Trent, the painfully awkward, wryly funny Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who made his debut in Karin Slaughter’s twisty 2006 thriller Triptych. He was almost a background player in that book, but he’s gone on to become Slaughter’s most popular character, headlining a series that reaches its ninth installment this month with THE LAST WIDOW.
Will, a six-foot-three square peg who favors three-piece suits in the sweltering Atlanta heat, trades sandwiches for haircuts from a morgue assistant and writes notes on his calendar reminding him to be emotionally vulnerable with his girlfriend every Monday, isn’t exactly cut from the same cloth as the Jack Reachers of the thriller world. In fact, he was specifically engineered to provide a contrast to another of Slaughter’s popular characters: Grant County police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, a swaggering, charming college football star whose jarring death ended Slaughter’s inaugural series.
“I didn’t want to just create a character who was Jeffrey but blond and living in Atlanta,” Slaughter says. “And so I really gave a lot of thought to Will Trent. Triptych was the book right before the one where I killed Jeffrey, and I planned that deliberately and I wanted him to kind of be on background because I wanted to sneak it in that I was going to give you a new series character.”
Will has seen his role evolve from that of a traditional investigator in early series installments to something much more personal. In 2012’s Criminal, Will confronted his father’s horrific past; in 2016’s The Kept Woman, Will and his girlfriend, Grant County holdover Sara Linton, were scrambling to save Will’s estranged wife. (If that statement seems bizarre to you, you have lots of catching up to do.)
In THE LAST WIDOW, the stakes are even higher: Sara, along with a CDC scientist, is kidnapped by domestic terrorists from an organization known as the IPA (Invisible Patriot Army), and Will must go undercover to try to find the women before the group realizes whatever nefarious plans it has in store for them.
“When I finished writing The Kept Woman, I actually had the idea for this book but I wasn’t quite ready to write it,” Slaughter says. “I had to give myself time to think about it. I wrote two books in between, and it was just my way of kind of wrapping my head around the subject matter. It took quite a bit of research to write this novel. I’m not one of these ‘ripped from the headlines’ kind of writers, so it was really difficult for me to decide whether or not this was the book to write because I thought, you know, this stuff is becoming very topical. Keep in mind I wrote it basically a year ago. I finally just decided, well, that’s not something I can think about. I just need to write the book that I want to write.”
Slaughter filled the three-year gap between The Kept Woman and THE LAST WIDOW with a pair of standalones—The Good Daughter and Pieces of Her—that she says helped hone the skills she’d need to realize her lofty vision for THE LAST WIDOW.
“Specifically, it gave me the opportunity to work on time shifts,” she says, referring to the new book’s virtuoso opening that recounts the same, violent string of events from three different perspectives. Rather than draining the sequence of suspense, Slaughter’s frequent rewinds serve to make the reader painfully aware of crucial information that is available to one character but not the others—the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s famous “bomb theory,” brought to excruciating life on the page.
“I played with that a little bit in The Good Daughter to a lesser degree, just kind of figuring out how I wanted to tell that story,” Slaughter says. “So just from a nuts-and-bolts point of view, it was really good for me to be able to take that break and work on different strategies about how I’m going to approach a book.”
Slaughter says the standalones also give her a welcome break from Will and Sara, and allow her to tell stories with the kind of high stakes that are hard to drum up in an ongoing series.
“You don’t know who’s going to live and who’s going to die and how things are going to turn out [in standalones],” she says.
Considering that Slaughter has already killed off one beloved series lead (on the final page of a book, no less), it’s safe to say that the stakes feel pretty high in every novel she writes. To that end, THE LAST WIDOW gets plenty of mileage from its uncomfortably familiar villains: a group of blood-and-soil white supremacists who joke about “owning the libs” and would’ve been right at home carrying tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville. In fact, the topics addressed in THE LAST WIDOW almost felt too timely for Slaughter.
“It’s really topical right now,” she says. “Even the director of the FBI, when he was asked what is the biggest threat to America, said domestic terrorism. And if you look at the history of the United States, we’re at this inflection point. I’ve been reading a lot about the race riots in 1919—white people had just come back from WWI, all these soldiers, and they were angry. They felt like they had been displaced, and they blamed the black people. There were lynchings and hangings and black people pulled from their homes, their homes burned down, all this stuff. We’ve seen that happen repeatedly in history, and it’s usually tied to war. I thought, you know, this is something that’s gonna happen, and I don’t know that people are aware of it. I think they see it in isolation in a way that they wouldn’t if the perpetrators were brown or black. … Can you imagine Charlottesville if those had been young black men? They would’ve been shot. It would’ve been called a riot. And smaller versions of this had been going on for a while. I don’t think they really put the pieces together. And so I wanted to write about that and put it in a narrative so that people can do what crime fiction readers love to do—put the pieces together and say, holy shit, this kind of stuff is really happening.”
And while Will, a gifted investigator who must find clever ways to hide his dyslexia from his colleagues at the GBI, is busy showing off his action-hero chops, Sara, a pediatrician and medical examiner, gets a chance to do something she’s never done before, either in the Grant County or Atlanta series: she weaponizes her medical training.
“This is a book where, for the first time, Sara isn’t helping people,” Slaughter says. “She’s actively trying to hurt them, and that was a lot of fun. I have a doctor who’s advised me from the second book on medical stuff that Sara does, and I said to him, ‘Okay, now we’re gonna hurt people.’ And he said, ‘I am totally on board with this.’”
Series fans will be glad to know that Slaughter is already working on the next Will Trent and Sara Linton novel, tentatively slated for release next summer. (She’ll follow that installment with another standalone.) While she knew with book number four that her Grant County series was coming to an end, she plans to keep writing about Will and Sara for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t know, because I don’t see that point coming up,” she says when asked how she’ll know when Will and Sara’s story has been told. “Never say never, but I just don’t see it. I like their relationship. I think there’s a lot of tension in it. It’s very easy to write about people making up and breaking up every other book, and using that as a form of tension. And it’s also very boring if you’re a reader. But with Will and Sara, I worked really hard to make their relationship as realistic as possible.”
It also helps that Slaughter relishes a challenge; with 19 novels under her belt, she says each one is harder to write than the one before it, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s getting harder, but it should,” she says. “I don’t want to write the same book each time. I want to always be challenging myself and doing something new and interesting. … And so the challenge now is, how do I keep them interesting while they’re still together, right? There’s just nothing that’s going to split them apart, and that has its own challenges from a writing standpoint.”
Photo credit (homepage & cover): Alison Rosa