When one sees the name “Karin Slaughter” on the spine of a book, one expects a story and characters with an unvarnished worldview. This expectation is built upon 14 years worth of police procedurals set in Slaughter’s Georgia and presented in the Grant County and Will Trent/Atlanta novels, which have converged over time and resulted in an enviable and compelling canon that exceeds its own standards with each new installment. However, Slaughter enters new and even darker territory with COP TOWN, her most memorable work to date.
COP TOWN is a first for Slaughter in the sense that it is a historical thriller, by the generally accepted definition of that term, and is also her first stand-alone work. The title refers to Atlanta in the mid-1970s, as referenced early on in the story by a character in the book. Atlanta is roiling with racial tension, still coming to extremely rough terms with the civil unrest of the previous decade, and this is reflected especially in its police department, which is under attack from within and without. An extremely uneasy de facto segregation exists within the department, the presence of a black police chief notwithstanding, and his policies, coming from a background outside of law enforcement, only make an intolerable situation worse. The department is further torn asunder by the presence of its female officers, who are treated as separate and much less than equal by their male counterparts and whose second-class status is aggravated by divisions within their own ranks along the jagged lines of race and experience.
"...one of the most brutally realistic books that I have read in recent memory; Slaughter’s literary talents are given full rein here, and the results are stunning. COP TOWN is one of this year’s must-read books."
The book focuses primarily on two of these female officers during a particularly harrowing period of four days in November 1974. One is Maggie Lawson, whose brother Jimmy and uncle Terry are veteran officers and legends among the rank and file. Their status does not extend to Maggie, though, whose bloodline means little or nothing to her fellow officers, including her blood relatives. The other is Kate Murphy, who is experiencing her first day on the job as the story opens. Kate comes from a higher class Buckhead background than do most officers. She is the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, and her sudden thrust into the workforce as a police officer almost seems to be a default move, at least at first.
The latest in a series of murders of police officers has occurred. This one is particularly close to Maggie, as the victim was her brother’s partner. Maggie almost immediately senses that Jimmy is lying about aspects of the shooting, basing her conclusions on details that are overlooked as the police force fans out across the city in a take-no-prisoners effort to find the shooter. The plan, known to the rank and file, is to bring the murders to an end by locating the doer and administering a swift and effective justice that will not be delayed or denied as a result of legal technicalities or biased juries composed of citizenry who have chafed for years at a system that has been stacked against them. When circumstances --- and Jimmy himself --- throw Maggie and Kate together on the street, it is a partnership akin to oil and water.
As the women become sidelined in the heat of the investigation, however, they reach an unspoken understanding as they conduct their own investigation, which is hampered by and fraught with danger from forces both inside and outside the department. When they finally arrive at the truth, nothing will be the same for either of them again.
Slaughter's latest is not a gritty novel; in fact, it goes beyond gritty. Scrape the dirt and grime off the street, and you’ll find the story taking place on the strata beneath. This is one of the most brutally realistic books that I have read in recent memory; Slaughter’s literary talents are given full rein here, and the results are stunning. COP TOWN is one of this year’s must-read books.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 27, 2014