Don’t be daunted by the six pages of acknowledgments listing the doctoral-dissertation-level research that went into the making of Karin Slaughter’s latest thriller. In addition to being an exhaustive and gimlet-eyed social history of modern Atlanta, especially its flawed criminal justice system and law-enforcement agencies, “Criminal” is the kind of hold-on-to-your-hat, nail-biting story Slaughter has become world-famous for.
It’s also the grisliest good-thing-it’s-not-true crime novel I’ve read since Hannibal Lecter bestrode the American publishing landscape. The physical and psychological tortures inflicted on young Atlanta prostitutes before they are murdered are described at greater length and in more punctilious detail than some readers will want to endure. But if the brave female police officers who have to confront these horrors can take it, readers should be able to handle it, too. Nor is skipping over this material a realistic option for Slaughter’s fans; it keeps recurring during meticulously rendered autopsies and in the memories of the scarred survivors of a sadist who’s right up there with Lecter in leaving an all-too-indelible impression.
What raises Slaughter way above the sensational is her wonderful way with characters, especially her women. In “Criminal,” Amanda Wagner is at the center of a satisfyingly complex tale spanning nearly four decades. In 1975, she’s the daughter of an irascible and deeply racist police officer who’s been suspended while the law-enforcement side of Atlanta’s racial politics is sorted out. It’s the Old South struggling to become the New South, and it’s not pretty. In one scene, Amanda, a rookie cop herself, and her partner, Evelyn, are put at terrible risk by co-workers who interfere with the radio transmissions of black cops, who do the same thing to the whites.
Amanda is as tough as her old man and, in her more enlightened way, just as angry. Her mother killed herself in a uniquely Southern-gothic set of circumstances, and it’s partly those circumstances that have left Amanda with a sturdy sense of fair play. She hates it that young white meth-addict prostitutes are vanishing and nobody cares, just as she learns to grasp the cruel stupidity of the Atlanta Police Department’s DNF, or Dead Negro File, which is similarly sloughed off.
Jump to the present, when battle-scarred, middle-aged Amanda is a higher-up in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The murder of a college co-ed has the same m.o. as the long-ago prostitute killings: a corpse left perfectly manicured with red nail polish and evidence of ghoulish torture. Amanda uncovers a direct connection to the earlier crimes, which leads her to reassign one of her bright young investigators to “airport duty.” That is, Will Trent must hang out in a men’s room at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport entrapping men cruising for gay sex. He is baffled over why he’s being punished, and only gradually and painfully does a connection come to light between Will and the terrible events in the year in which he was born.
Self-doubting, dyslexic, restless Will is beautifully drawn by Slaughter, as is his pediatrician girlfriend. Yet the characters in “Criminal” you can’t get enough of are Amanda and her female-cop chums as they overcome distrust of one another and help each other survive the sexist and sometimes brutal atmosphere of the police department. Their personal lives are almost as frustrating, partly because “not many men possessed the temperament for dating a woman who could arrest them.” A big development in the lives of Amanda and her circle in 1975 is birth control, which has just become legally available to unmarried women in Georgia.
The novel’s back-and-forth between 1975 and the present is handled adroitly, with the juxtaposition of larger events and attitudes in an evolving society. For instance, when the younger Amanda is taken to the home of a crime-scene photographer, she feels uneasy. “Amanda had never been inside a Jew’s home before. She didn’t quite know what to expect.”
“Criminal” is Russian-novel length, and I became impatient a few times, though never for long. In the final chapters, reader whiplash is a serious risk.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey private-investigator novels under the name Richard Stevenson. “The Last Thing I Saw” will be published in September.
By Karin Slaughter
448 pp. $27