Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review: COP TOWN

COP TOWN by Karin Slaughter (Century, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

1970s Atlanta: A time of great change and yet for many the fierce desire to keep things exactly the same is still strong. For women like Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy every day is a battle. From different sides of the tracks they are united in their determination to be good cops. But they have to fight the prejudice of people like Maggie's uncle Terry who are convinced a woman's place is in the home. 

And all this in a city where 10 cops are killed a year and most of the city is a no-go area - even for their male colleagues. Then Jimmy's partner is shot dead and Maggie and Kate find themselves caught up in a case that forces them to make choices. Choices that have far reaching consequences - for them, for the police force, and for the community as a whole.

This is a simply superb novel, where one of the biggest thriller writing names in the business jukes sideways, taking a different route from her bestselling Grant County and Will Trent books, and provides us with an outstanding, substantial standalone set against the racist/sexist/pick-your-issue-ist policing of the American South a few decades ago.

Fans of Slaughter's chilling tales will find some similarities (smooth storytelling,strong narrative drive, good characters) with what they're used to, but differences too. COP TOWN is set in 1974 Atlanta, an era Slaughter brings to vivid, textured life on the page. Even though it's only one generation ago, times were very, very different. A decade on from the Civil Rights movement, laws may have changed and black politicians might be breaking into city politics, but ingrained attitudes remain largely the same among huge chunks of the populace. Including the police force.

Racial tensions crackle, women in the workforce are belittled and abused, and homosexuals can expect even worse treatment if their well-kept secret ever gets out. Into this powder keg of fear and divisiveness stride two female cops, rookie Kate Murphy and the more experienced Maggie Lawson. They each feel unwanted by their male colleagues, their opportunity to wear blue is thanks to political moves and funding rather than any real desire on the part of the police force to diversify. Kate and Maggie both have strong personal reasons to become cops, but that doesn't matter to their peers.

What's worse, Kate isn't allowed to ease into her job. Still recovering from her husband's death in Vietnam, the 25-year-old widow's first day is a shocker: a beloved cop has been gunned down, his brothers in blue are out for blood, and the city is on the edge of war. Maggie is caught up professionally and personally: her brother, also a cop, is all-too-close to the match-lighting crime.

This is a raw and roiling thriller. It's not the easiest book to digest, being full of racism, sexism, and other nastiness. But Slaughter does a fantastic job evoking an ugly era of modern American history, pulling back the covers from things kept behind closed doors or airbrushed away. Kate and Maggie are both excellent characters, and as they decide to investigate the cop killing themselves with no help from their male colleagues, it's easy to ride along with these brave, formidable women.

I've enjoyed many of Slaughter's previous books, but for me this is her masterpiece.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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