There’s never a dull moment in Georgia with Karin Slaughter on the literary rampage. In her newest book, “The Last Widow,” the popular thriller writer lays out her customary spread of clinically observed, bloody mayhem. I lost count of the dead and dying after the first bomb went off at Emory University on Page 22. With real-life mass murder an American fixture now, this book’s gore makes it something of a surreal beach read.
Thankfully, as usual, Slaughter also gives us characters who are easy to care about: Sara Linton, a pediatrician and part-time coroner, and state investigator Will Trent. The two are together for the ninth time — along with believable baddies you can’t wait to see drawn and quartered, and not necessarily metaphorically, either.
This time it’s an all-too-timely far-right white supremacist militia destined for comeuppance. It takes quite a while for this reckoning to eventuate, however, and 448 pages of blood and guts are more than some readers may need — or want. Luckily, interspersed among the carnage are some nice scenes with Linton and Trent, who are on the verge of moving in together despite his inability to communicate and her intimidating stock portfolio.
Slaughter is wonderfully adept at showing decent people struggling in their relationships. Will, she writes, “was trying to be more open with Sara about what he was feeling,” so “he just made a note on his calendar every Monday to tell her something that was bothering him.” Later, he will have to survive not only domestic terrorists but also Linton’s mother, Cathy, who was “like a skunk who could not stop spraying in Will’s direction.”
The novel’s bang-up opening scene has a clever twist on a current trend in pop fiction. A mother and her 11-year-old daughter are in a mall parking lot when a van pulls up, snatches one of them, and speeds off. But it’s not the child who is taken this time, it’s the mother, Michelle Spivey, who happens to be an epidemiologist with a top-level security clearance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This hints early of biological weaponry in the making. When the truth of what the racist nuts (called the Invisible Patriot Army) have in mind eventually comes out — after Sara is also kidnapped and Will goes undercover to rescue her — the exact scientific nature of what the group is planning is truly bloodcurdling. Again, not just in the metaphorical sense.
A few of Slaughter’s plot turns are shaky, while some are off-the-wall but still believable. The CDC scientist Spivey, for instance, is helping the IPA leader, a psychotic ex-military man named Dash, create a vast store of biological weapons. Spivey is doing this to keep Dash from kidnapping and raping her young daughter Emma. But things go haywire for Dash when Spivey develops appendicitis, of all things, and needs surgery in a hospital so she can live long enough to finish her job at the IPA’s secret camp in the Appalachians. It’s odd complications like a bursting appendix that keep increasingly desperate investigators — and pleasurably anxious readers — guessing as to what could possibly come next.
Dash is among the all-too-believable characters who make up the IPA’s leaders and motley recruits. The dozens of IPA members like to march around chanting “Blood and soil! Blood and soil!” — shades of Charlottesville 2017 — and Dash himself has devoted his life to “cleansing the country of the enablers and mongrels.” To do so, “we must destroy this corrupt society to remake ourselves as the Framers intended,” he says — and by “destroy,” he isn’t speaking figuratively.
It’s unnerving that a novel as thoroughly researched as this one seems to be saying we have to rely on a couple of near-superhero types like Linton and Trent to save us all from cataclysmic mass murder. The FBI is depicted as politically factionalized and borderline ineffectual. Slaughter also writes convincingly about the ease of killing hundreds of thousands of Americans employing science and technology that’s not all that hard to come by. One kilo of a particular substance, Slaughter posits, would be enough to wipe out the entire human race. To prevent that from happening, we shouldn’t have to rely on an evildoer’s helper coming down with appendicitis.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson. “Killer Reunion” is the latest.
By Karin Slaughter
William Morrow. 464 pp. $27.99