Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Thursday, July 12, 2012 12:00 PM
It’s not easy to discern how Karin Slaughter views Georgia, the state in the American South where she was born and raised and now writes her superlative crime thrillers. She has previously placed her recurring cast in fictional Grant County, which over several novels has racked up a body count one can only hope is exaggerated for dramatic purposes and is not indicative of the state’s murder rate.
Now, in the engrossing Criminal, the city of Atlanta is the prominent character, her merits and flaws presented unabashedly. In the steamy August of 1974, Atlanta is not yet a “nighttime town”, as teenage prostitute Lucy Bennett reflects. It’s the anchor of the New South – ‘The City Too Busy to Hate’.
In the present day, roaming his longtime colleague and brand-new paramour Sara Linton’s empty apartment, FBI special agent Will Trent ponders the statistics that tell a city’s story. Atlanta is, relative to other American centres, a small town, with a population inside the city limits of little more than 500,000. But in light of the crime rate – 300 hundred murders a year, 1,100 reported rapes and 13,000 aggravated assault charges – it’s “more like a small town with a chip on its shoulder.” In such an environment, Slaughter is reminding us, anything can happen.
One of the first things is that Ashleigh Snyder, 19, a sophomore at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is reported missing. This news has scarcely been digested before another visceral flashback to the 1970s, this time involving Will’s boss, Amanda Wagner, then a green young officer investigating a possible rape in one of Atlanta’s most dangerous projects. There we learn that several young prostitutes, among them Lucy Bennett, have gone missing in the past year. In short order, it becomes apparent that the same serial killer may be responsible for the victims of 1974-5 and 2012, having been dormant for the interim.
Slaughter is a cut above most of her contemporaries for several reasons, perhaps the foremost being her crafty evolution of the series’ primary characters. Last year’s Fallen focused on Will’s partner Faith Mitchell and her retired police chief mother Evelyn, whose role in Criminal helps show the forces that formed Amanda Wagner. In 2010’s Broken, medical examiner Sara is struggling with her grief over her husband’s violent death four years earlier and her growing attraction to Will. By the time of Criminal, the pair have begun a relationship that is endangered by Will’s distress over the release from prison of his estranged father.
What Criminal reveals is how the police department of today has morphed from the hellish environment of the 1970s in which Amanda earned her stripes. It was a scene dominated by sexism and barely suppressed violence, sheltering law enforcers who were every bit as dangerous as the perpetrators they rounded up. Slaughter’s exhaustive research into the underbelly of 1970s Atlanta pays off handsomely; she has crafted a thrilling tale in which the very environment seems to possess a malignant heartbeat. There is no way to prepare for danger; you can’t guess from which direction a hazard will come.
Constant readers seeking their fill of Sara and Will will be utterly satisfied (though not a little concerned) by the events of Criminal, while newcomers will find a crime thriller that supports the argument that great genre writers are great writers, period. Slaughter is a marvelous talent who balances her gifts with old-fashioned graft.
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