Reviewed by Jason Barr
JASON BARR is a teacher in Harrisonburg.
In Karin Slaughter’s latest book, “Criminal,” the narrative alternates between the present day and 1970s Atlanta. Even though “Criminal” has many of the flaws that plague contemporary thrillers, the book should be considered one of the best thrillers of the year.
Slaughter’s choice of 1970s Atlanta works well: As her several pages of notes detail, she researched this time period thoroughly, and what made this era so important is that it was the first time that women and blacks gained equal access to jobs on the police force.
Although Slaughter overlooks the lives of newly minted black officers, she immerses the narrative in the lives of two female detectives, Amanda Wagner and Evelyn Mitchell. The women work desperately to discover who has been killing female prostitutes, but solving the case is only half of their job. Much of the time, they are trying to navigate the highly sexist environment of the police department, repeatedly fending off verbal and even sexual assaults. Indeed, Slaughter slyly juxtaposes the treatment of the prostitutes by their pimp with the treatment the detectives receive at the department. The difference is almost negligible.
The present-day narrative follows these two women, older but wiser, as they attempt to hunt down a suspect whose case closely matches the ’70s killer. There are other characters of course, but none seem to be as interesting or as engaging as Wagner or Mitchell. As in many good thrillers, however, the murder mystery and the mundane nature of forensics investigation take a back seat to character development, and, as the pages of “Criminal” near their end, readers will be sorry to see Wagner and Mitchell go.
Slaughter does fall into a few narrative traps. As in most thrillers, large portions of the narrative are dominated by dialogue as the characters try to tease meaning out of a crime scene, which at times suffers from tedium. Some parts of the plot, especially those surrounding the central mystery, often rely on coincidences to propel the narrative forward.
And, finally, Wagner and Mitchell’s big breakthrough in the ’70s is a little too neat. Men on the police force who routinely denigrated them suddenly “adopt” them into the police force after they successfully solve a crime.
But these are quibbles. “Criminal” is an excellently paced and thoroughly well-written thriller that will please all fans of the genre.