Karin Slaughter’s new thriller, “The Good Daughter,” is not for the squeamish. All of Slaughter’s books — the Will Trent and Grant County series — are known for being deeply researched.
Sometimes this means multiple pages containing forensic details of grisly murders and savage rapes that are spelled out horribly as they happen. Some of this information is useful — in “The Good Daughter,” you can learn, for example, how to survive being buried alive. But most of it is there in the service of being truthful about physical violence and to generate our sympathy for the victims — both worthy pursuits.
A lot of this goriness, however, is hard to take repeatedly and at length, so readers beware.
Family dysfunction plays a big role in this turbulent saga about the Quinns of Pikeville, Ga., a place you might want to visit if you wish to puncture any romantic illusions you have about small-town American life. The D.A. is corrupt, the cops are dimwitted know-nothings, and most of the citizenry tends toward ignorant mob mentality.
Rusty Quinn is the defense lawyer just about everybody hates because he defends people accused of especially despicable crimes. Some of these accused carjackers, pedophiles, kidnappers and rapists are innocent, some guilty. All of their “case files read like pulp novels that always ended the same, bad way.” Rusty believes that in our justice system even the worst rotters deserve a fair trial. Plus, he doesn’t trust the cops and prosecutors, often for good reason in Pikeville.
Rusty’s wife, Gamma, is a brilliant research scientist who has given up a career elsewhere to settle with Rusty in the town he has loved/hated all his life. In the ghastly opening scene of the novel, set in 1989, Gamma is gunned down and dies in a home invasion led by a local redneck creep, Zack Culpepper, whom Rusty had actually saved from going to jail. Rusty’s two daughters, Charlotte, (called Charlie), 13, and Samantha, (called Sam), 15, are kidnapped and terrorized by the invaders. Rusty isn’t home at the time, and Sam, who takes months to recover physically, blames him and soon abandons what remains of the family and eventually becomes a rich patent lawyer in New York.
Jump ahead 28 years to the present day, where a school shooting in Pikeville that Charlie witnesses reunites the Quinns. A “low-functioning” 18-year-old, Kelly Wilson, stands accused of shooting dead a school principal and an 8-year-old girl. Charlie, a defense lawyer herself now, is a witness and can’t take the case, but 74-year-old Rusty can and does, again earning the wrath of the people of Pikeville.
A security video recording seems to suggest the shooting itself was not what it first seemed to be, and when Rusty is stabbed and Sam ends up taking his place for the Wilson arraignment, what had been mainly a novel about a fractious family and the sources of its pain turns into a riveting legal thriller.
The plot twists here are satisfyingly surprising and plausible, but it’s Slaughter’s prodigious gifts of characterization that make her stand out among thriller writers. The sisters are like two kids fighting in the back seat of a family car well into adulthood, and it’s lovely to see the hate part of their love-hate for each other eventually erode away. They are often wonderfully funny together, as in a funeral parlor scene where they attempt to lower a balky coffin lid over a corpse that has been cosmetically “improved” hideously. Slaughter’s satirical touches are as deft as her grimmer renditions of real life.
It’s Rusty, though, who is the most winning of all the semi-oddball Quinns. It drives his daughters crazy that he smokes and drinks to excess, but they love being with him and in the presence of his warmth and humor. And his mock-courtly manner, as when in a hospital bed he notes the tubes protruding from his midsection and barks out, “Oh, I am slain!” When he explains to Charlie that “death snickers at us all, my dear. The eternal footman will not hold my coat forever.”
Some readers may find that at 500 pages “The Good Daughter” is a little longer than it needs to be (Is it mean to fat-shame a novel?), but if I were to attempt to pare it down, I don’t know where I would start. Sleekness has its virtues — come back, Inspector Maigret! — but in Slaughter’s big tome neither does there seem to be a word wasted, which is quite a feat.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Karin Slaughter
Morrow. 500 pp. $27.99