‘Fallen’ balances violence and compassion

June 19, 2011

The first 16 pages of Karin Slaughter’s new novel are a master class in suspense. Faith Mitchell, a 34-year-old agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, is running late as she drives to pick up her 4-month-old daughter at the home of Faith’s mother, who is a retired Atlanta police officer. Her mother doesn’t respond to her messages. Faith keeps telling herself that nothing is wrong, but we readers fear the worst. Finally, she reaches the house, and our fears are realized: “There was a bloody handprint on the door.” Faith knows she should wait for backup but instead she seizes her Glock and charges inside. Within minutes, several men are dead or dying, and others have escaped with Faith’s mother. Faith will spend the rest of the novel trying to rescue her.

Fallen,” Slaughter’s 11th novel in 11 years, shows again that she is in the first rank of today’s crime novelists. Her story is expertly written, exhaustively researched, steeped in police lore, deeply rooted in the author’s native Georgia and exceedingly violent. Slaughter has a rare ability to balance violence with a compassionate view of her complex and all-too-human characters. She’s a supremely tough-minded novelist who often writes with exceptional sensitivity.

This book’s three main characters have all appeared in one or more of her earlier novels. Faith is a good cop trying to find her kidnapped mother and protect her two children from unknown enemies. We learn that her children were born outside marriage, the first when she was 15, and that she has endured “a lifetime of breathtakingly bad taste in men.” Will Trent, another GBI investigator, is tall, reticent, dyslexic, a product of harsh foster homes and an excellent cop. Dr. Sara Linton, the star of early Slaughter novels set in a small town, is now an Atlanta emergency-room physician trying to get over the death of her husband. Here she finds herself falling for Will, despite the fact that he’s married to a wife from hell.

The central mystery of the novel is why Faith’s ex-cop mother was kidnapped. Some years earlier, she was forced to retire after narcotics officers under her command were convicted of stealing millions of dollars in drug money. The kidnappers may have thought she had a fortune hidden in her home. Or she may have gotten caught up in a war between rival gangs, one Asian, one Hispanic. In one horrific scene, we see “soulless” young thugs brutally torturing the 63-year-old grandmother.

The pleasures of Slaughter’s novels include frequent asides that capture her characters or the South itself. Many focus on Sara. “Sara wondered if it was a Southern peculiarity for little children to get sick in the half hour between Sunday school and church services.” “She’d felt embarrassed when her mother pointed out that she was too tall to wear capri pants.” “How she missed the manners of good country people, when even the junkies called her ‘ma’am.’ ”

Other comments are more serious: “Every doctor carried around a cemetery inside them. The patients she could help — the little girl whose stomach she’d pumped, the burned toddler whose fingers she’d saved — were momentary blips. It was the lost ones that Sara remembered most.” Slaughter can take us on a terrifying tour of a prison’s death row, where Will glimpses “threads from a sheet braided into a whip with razor blades tied at the ends.” The novel features two of the scariest prison scenes since Hannibal Lecter was behind bars.

Yet she also writes about what one character calls “the inherent risks that came with love.” These can include Faith risking her life, as she willingly does as she tries to save her mother, or the risks Sara takes in loving Will, a married man who has never known love. They can include the challenges that face women who love outside society’s boundaries, because, in part, the novel is about the cruelties that confronted unwed mothers in Atlanta a generation ago.

In the end, for love, Faith walks into a possibly lethal trap because it’s the only way to save her mother. And even as a psychopath toys with the two women, we learn about the long-buried secrets that have caused eight people to die in just a few days. “Fallen” is a complex, gripping and deadly serious novel that reflects anew Slaughter’s abundant talent. If you haven’t read her, you should.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.

FALLEN

By Karin Slaughter

Delacorte. 387 pp.

$26

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