Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer staples

There are always writers I think of as my summer constants. They invariably release a new book (usually in a series) every summer, and these round out my beach reading. I have no idea what the beach will be like this summer without a new Stephanie Plum release by Janet Evanovich (she's releasing in the fall this year). One of these (fairly recently discovered for me) is Karin Slaughter, and I just read her new novel, CRIMINAL, being unable to wait until I was at an actual beach to do so. Amanda Kyle Williams is another new one for me (her first novel, THE STRANGER YOU SEEK, was published last summer). Once upon a time, Patricia Cornwell was another. What are your favorite beach staples?

CRIMINAL by Karin Slaughter: Her recent mysteries, featuring Will Trent of the GBI, are set in Atlanta, which is loads of fun for me. My only complaint about her books is that the violence is so extreme. More creative and horrifying torture methods than I'm really looking for. Doesn't anyone just shoot or stab or strangle without some sick, seriously disturbing abuse? But this is not usually a huge part of the narrative, so I read her anyway for the depiction of Atlanta, the excellent mysteries, and the believable, interesting cops.

Many series start to lose steam and eventually plod along formulaically, but CRIMINAL is Slaughter's best to date. Will Trent has a troubled past and an odd relationship with Amanda, and Slaughter hasn't rushed to share every detail of his background. This installment is particularly revelatory as far as Will goes, but it's unexpectedly enlightening concerning the racist/sexist history of Atlanta, particularly in the police world. Slaughter has clearly done her research on both the legal/organizational details and the general atmosphere and attitudes of the time.

"The federal Law Enforcement Assistance Association grant that had created the Atlanta police sex crimes division required all teams to be comprised of three-officer units that were racially and sexually integrated. These rules were seldom followed, because white women could not ride alone with black men, black women - at least the ones who wanted to keep their reputations - did not want to ride with black men, and none of the blacks wanted to ride with any man who was white."

That matter-of-fact paragraph sets the tone for a divided police department in which female police officers are laughed at, groped, and sent into danger as a prank. Seeing Amanda in this context gives the reader a full picture of her that we've never had before. Suddenly her tough-as-nails don't-give-a-shit attitude is completely understandable. She's a character who has always intrigued me, but I never thought I would find her sympathetic. Amanda's partner, Evelyn, is married with a child, which adds another dimension to the treatment of women:

"Bill and I agreed that we shouldn't keep a loaded gun in the house because of the baby."

Words clogged Amanda's throat. She screamed, "Your gun isn't loaded!"

"Well..." Evelyn dug her fingers into the back of her hair. "It worked out, right?" She let out a strained laugh. "Sure, it worked out. We're both fine. We're both just fine." She looked down at the pimp again.

Evelyn's decision to return to the force after having a baby is viewed as utterly bizarre. Slaughter works in other details about attitudes toward women in 1970s Atlanta that are not specific to policing: Women can't open checking accounts, apply for a credit card, or even rent an apartment without cosigning by a husband or father.

The racial division in the forcibly integrated police force is equally fascinating/horrifying:

There were pockets all over the city where the radios had little or no reception, but that wasn't the problem. A black officer was calling for backup, which meant the white officers were blocking the transmission by clicking the buttons on their mics. In the next hour, a white officer would call for help and the blacks would do the same. And then someone with the Atlanta Journal or Constitution would write an article wondering about the recent spike in crime."

It's a wonder that any crimes were solved in this era at all. The 1970s murders are only solved because Amanda and Evelyn ignore the harassment and abuse from the male officers in charge and place themselves in danger to seek out the culprit. Amanda's father would have kept her in line, but he has been temporarily relieved of his lofty position due to racially fueled politics. He has been in the force since Klan affiliation had been compulsory for all Atlanta Police Department members. Amanda is conflicted about carrying on her investigation with Evelyn, but the fact that the murder victims are girls and no one else cares about them spurs her on. The 1970s investigation is told in parallel with a related present-day murder investigation, and the mystery is complex and interesting. Will and Amanda's relationship is finally explained, and the revelations make me more eager to read the next installment in the series.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

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