Karin Slaughter – what a name for a thriller writer! – is a massive bestseller for a good reason, as I found out when I read her Cop Town. Her story of two policewomen trying to make their way in 1970s Atlanta is both a gripping novel and a sharp look at the prejudices still bedeviling American society.
Slaughter’s first main character is Maggie Lawson. She hails from a cop family, and her relatives consider her attempt to be a police officer something of a joke. The novel opens when her brother Jimmy, also on the force, is shot and wounded by a serial cop killer.
The other lead character, Kate Murphy, is a rookie from the right side of the tracks, rather than from the usual blue-collar neighborhoods. Worse for her, she’s a pretty blonde with an uppity accent. Her first day on the force is a lesson in the police department’s blatant sexism, racism and casual cruelty. It’s not exactly surprising, but it’s harrowing nonetheless. And although we know pretty much from the start that Murphy will transform herself into a capable, tough cop, and probably solve the crime, Slaughter makes sure this happens in interesting ways. She makes sure her characters make mistakes, but ones that we approve of, particularly in Murphy’s sexual awakening, which plays a subtle counterpoise to the misogyny around her.
Slaughter combines an exciting whodunit police procedural with the story she’s really telling, that of pioneering women trying to survive in a man’s world on their own terms. In fact, Cop Town goes deeper: it’s an American story about all kinds of outsiders trying to assert themselves, to be given full access to the country’s promise, to widen the franchise. And it’s about reactionary forces that resist. The bad news: this struggle is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. The good news: Slaughter turns these things into a highly entertaining read.
Of course, the day-to-day lives of women cops in the 70s requires plenty of research to bring to life. Slaughter does a good job of taking what must have been copious work digging into the minutiae of the time, from uncomfortable equipment to race relations in the locker room, and converting them into unobtrusive plot points and character revelations.
I decided to try one of Slaughter’s books because I saw her in action at ThrillerFest in New York this past summer. She was serving as interviewer for another big-time woman mystery writer. Slaughter was playing second fiddle, but she possesses a bawdy and edgy wit that made her by far the more interesting person on stage. I figured I should read something by anyone who could put such a razor intelligence into action. And I was right.