Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: "Criminal," by Karin Slaughter. In Plaza de Armas


The way they treat women is: Criminal

The gruesome, complex plot in Karin Slaughter’s latest, Criminal, holds its own nicely, but the takeaway for the reader is a more encompassing horror. Amid the waves of torture as the storyline shifts from mid-1970s Atlanta to present day is a pervasive portrait less about the sociopaths who perpetrate the damage than the ceaseless abuse that is wreaked on the novel’s women — cops, criminals and victims. This twisted world — a thinly disguised, familiar reality — demands both tactical adherence to role-playing in a men’s game and fearless, heroic opposition to it.

I will admit that I had trouble settling into the story. There was the porn-violence of the assaults, the jolts of time-jumping, and the relentless declarative sentences that made me feel as if I were reading a newspaper feature story. Somewhere it began to kick in; an anger so deep it had to be approached in oblique, terse syntax. It became impossible to look away. I admit I got hooked.
Without spoiling the mystery, the plot jumps through decades and generations to coalesce around serial murders against women almost no one ever misses. Will Trent, an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, wants to solve the case but is pushed back by deputy director Amanda Wagner for reasons she won’t discuss. But they both learn why, as the switchback trail to the source of the bloodlust narrows onto a painful past neither can escape.

In the course of putting together the clues, Will is guided by women who all know him well and in different ways: Amanda, the detective; her ’70s-era partner Evelyn Mitchell; physician girlfriend Sara; and badass ex-wife Angie. In effect the women become the protagonists, and the story becomes theirs. This structural dramatic shift gives Criminal its weight. It also injects cold clarity into the virulent misogyny of the Atlanta police department in the (ostensibly) old days. Slaughter’s view of institutional sexism in cop-world is much tougher than anything seen in most TV crime procedurals or even some of the better crime movies.

Shift to modern day. The killers are found — both low-life and high-born. Amazingly, one of the 1975 victims, “Kitty,” has survived, but at a staggering cost — married to one of the torturers. During their wrap-up interview, Amanda and Will press hard-as-nails Kitty for an explanation. Her choice seems impossible to understand. Amanda insists it’s not too late for help:
“You can leave him. You can leave him right now.”
“Why would I do that?” She seemed genuinely perplexed. “He is my husband.  I love him.”
Her matter-of-fact tone was as shocking as anything Will had heard today. She really seemed to want an answer.
Amanda asked, “How could you? After all he did?”
Kitty snarled out a long stream of smoke. “You know how it is with men.”  She flicked the cigarette into the yard. “Sometimes it’s criminal what a woman has to do.”
The snarl is the dark core of the book. It speaks a truth in which we are all complicit. It is difficult to know how it can be transcended. But not impossible.

Criminal, by Karin Slaughter,  Delacorte Press, 2012, is available here.
Rod Davis is author of Corina’s Way and other works.

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