Murder and Slaughter: the art of crime fiction
Karin Slaughter is on her 11th novel, which takes a trip back in time to reflect on feminism, the Atlanta police force with, of course, some gory violence
KARIN SLAUGHTER would like it to be known that Karin Slaughter is not a work of fiction.
“Yes, that really is my real last name,” says the Georgia-born author with a laugh. “There’s a village in the Cotswolds called Lower Slaughter. I went there on my vacation last year just for the photo op. There’s a place called Slaughter Manor, a beautiful old manor. I asked for it back and they said no.”
Criminal is Slaughter’s 11th novel. An intertextual mingling of characters from a disparate series of bestselling books, it features the Atlanta police detective Will Trent as he investigates the kidnap and murder of young women, the twist being that the killer’s modus operandi is remarkably similar to that of Will’s own father, a notorious murderer who has recently been released from prison.
Much of the story takes place in 1975, however, as Slaughter explores the time and place that made Will’s boss, Amanda Wagner, the woman she is today.
“I’ve been writing about Amanda for years,” says Slaughter, in her soft Southern drawl. “She’s kind of a ball-breaker, and I started to wonder about how she got that way. Every woman I know, and most men I know, have an Amanda Wagner in their lives. A woman who got to the top – and, instead of helping everyone else, she kicked the ladder away and told them they had to crawl across glass to follow her. So I wanted to explore why she got that way, and the best way to do that was to start talking about how things were when she started on the police force.”
Atlanta in 1975 was not a feminist bastion. “I got to talk to a lot of women and men who were cops back then,” she says. “Just getting into that mindset of how awful it was for the first police women. They weren’t taken seriously, and many of them were afraid of being raped every day on the job, and not just by the bad guys but by the people they worked with. And living with that kind of fear, and with that kind of anger, really defined who Amanda became.”
Writing about Georgia in the 1970s, with its ingrained sexism and racism, confirmed for Slaughter that Atlanta’s past was not only a different country but also one in which society failed to function.
“We have this really strange sense of nostalgia for better times,” she says, “when they weren’t necessarily better. They might have felt simpler because the rules were very clearly outlined and everyone knew their place, as it were. And I suppose there’s some comfort in having that social order, but then you read about any Third World country where women are second-class or third-class or sometimes not even considered citizens – and they’re not very successful models as countries. One of the ways in which western countries have excelled is in the realisation that the old way of things doesn’t work, that there has to be some sort of integration.
“I watch Mad Men, and I love it, but people forget that time was really great if you were Don Draper. If you were Betty Draper it kind of sucked. Or if you were a Jew, or a black person or another minority, it sucked.”
Born and reared in the Peach State – “I grew up in Georgia,” she says with another laugh, “where we drink fiddle-dee-dee from our mother’s breast” – Slaughter took her inspiration from a fellow Georgian.
“I really loved Flannery O’Connor,” she says. “She really changed my way of thinking about how stories can be told. The fact that she was a woman, that she was from a small town in Georgia, that she was writing about violent things, and writing in a vernacular that really resonated, that was very much a revelation for me, because I’d never thought it was possible to write like that. So it changed my thinking about how I could be – not just a writer who wrote little stories my dad liked, but I could be a writer who wrote stories that could one day be published.”
Today, Slaughter is in the vanguard of a wave of contemporary American women crime writers who have benefited from the breakthroughs achieved by a previous generation, who kicked down the doors of a male-dominated genre.
“Absolutely. I grew up reading Sara Paretsky, and then Sue Grafton and Heather McGuinness,” she says. Paretsky, Grafton and Patricia Cornwell et al weren’t just successful authors: they offered strong, assertive women characters who investigated the impact of crime on the culture from a woman’s perspective.
“You know, even if you go back to Metta Fuller Victor with The Dead Letter, what she was writing about was society, and what crime does to society.”
Metta Fuller Victor, writing as Seeley Regester, is credited with writing the first full-length crime novel when The Dead Letter was published, in 1867. “And there’s no difference between that and George Pelecanos or Mike Connelly or Karin Slaughter. One of my favourite books about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was not some literary tome called My Navel, Myself, where someone was raging against the dying of the light, it was James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown.
“I think it’s because crime writers tend to write one book per year that we’re more tuned in to society and to reacting to what’s going on,” she says. “And crime really tells a universal story. Everyone, whether you’re living in Georgia or Ireland or Somalia or anywhere else on the planet, is afraid of crime and violence. Also, the crime novel is a very useful narrative device. Think of a seminal American novel – The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Snow Falling on Cedars or The Lovely Bones – and one thing these novels have in common is that there’s a murder in all of them.
“You can go back a lot further and talk about a local community organiser who pisses off the politicians in town, and they frame him and send him to be executed. I mean,” she says, laughing, “that’s essentially the story of Jesus Christ. So crime writers aren’t really telling new stories. We’re just telling them in a new way.”
Criminal is published by Century