Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Karin Slaughter is well-regarded as the author of the Will Trent crime fiction series and the Grant County series. She has also written several standalone thrillers. It’s about time this feature included one of Slaughter’s books, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Cop Town, the first of Slaughter’s standalone novels.
It’s 1974, and Atlanta has been rocked by the execution-style murders of several police officers by a killer nicknamed The Shooter. As the story begins, there’s been another killing, this time of Officer Don Wesley. Fellow officer Jimmy Lawson narrowly missed being killed himself. Jimmy’s well-liked on the force, and so was Don. So, as though the murder of one of their own wasn’t enough to spur them on, the police are especially eager to catch this killer. And they aren’t exactly worried about ensuring that whoever it is gets a fair trial.
Jimmy’s sister, Maggie, is also a police officer. She’s had a difficult enough time being a woman in what is very much a man’s world. Even though she’s the sister and the niece of fellow cops, her colleagues don’t generally take her seriously. She and the few other female police officer have to cope with bullying, sexual harassment, makeshift accommodations, and more. But Maggie is just as determined to be a good cop as any of her male counterparts.
Maggie is soon joined by a new recruit, Kate Murphy. Kate, too, has to endure a lot. And, since she’s brand-new, and there’s a lot she doesn’t know, Maggie has very little patience with her at first. It doesn’t help matters that Kate comes from a better socioeconomic situation, and has been educated. Gradually, though, they learn to work together and even trust each other. And that’s a good thing, because they’re not going to get a lot of support from most of the men at the station.
Maggie and Kate soon find that all is not as it seems with this shooting. Forensics and other reports don’t exactly match what was said about the shooting. As they get to the truth about the matter, they learn some secrets that some people have been hiding. And they soon see that they’re going to have to catch the killer quickly, before they become victims themselves.
This novel has a lot of elements of the thriller. The pace is quick, there are unexpected plot twists, and it’s sometimes very hard to tell who can be trusted and who can’t. Readers who enjoy that sort of suspense will appreciate this.
At the same time, this is the story of two young women trying to make it as police officers at a time when there was just about every reason to say they wouldn’t. The story is told from each of their perspectives (third person, past tense), so we get to learn a great deal about their characters.
In many ways, it’s a study in contrasts. Kate has a more privileged background, an educated accent, and so on. She is Jewish, although she doesn’t observe. She is also a Vietnam War widow who is coping with her loss. In fact, that’s part of what led her to join the police force.
For her part, Maggie comes from a very blue-collar background. Her brother and uncle are members of the police force, and she wants to prove her worth as a cop. She’s had more experience on the force, so in some ways, she’s the one with the answers. But Kate is no mental slouch.
The setting within which Maggie and Kate work is mid-1970s Atlanta. Racism and anti-Semitism are deeply ingrained in the culture. Even on the police force, the races don’t mix. Sexism is also a major problem, and that’s one of the main issues in the novel. Maggie and Kate are not Atlanta’s first female police officers, but the force is still very male. Most of their male fellow cops don’t want them there, and some are brutal about it. Slaughter shows, too, how that culture of bullying grows and is perpetuated, even by other women. She shows why, instead of supporting new female recruits, the more veteran female police officers are often at least as hard on them as the men are, although in different ways.
The mid-1970s were a time of dramatic social change, and that’s made clear in the novel. People aren’t ‘keeping to their places’ any more, and a lot of the police officers find that difficult to accept. They’re part of the ‘old boys network’ who are nostalgic for the ‘good old days.’ And yet, the city is changing, times are changing, and a new approach to police work is needed. That, too, is an element in this novel.
As you can imagine, the novel does have many elements of the police procedural. Readers follow along at briefings, patrols, searches for witnesses, and so on. The truth comes out through putting pieces of the evidence together, asking questions, looking at reports, and, sometimes, ‘leg work.’
This is a gritty novel. There is violence, some of it brutal. And Slaughter doesn’t gloss over the attitudes of the day. So, there are slurs and epithets that modern readers would consider offensive. In that sense, the novel captures the society of the mid-1970s. Readers who prefer lighter novels with less explicit language and violence will notice this.
Cop Town is a police procedural with a thriller-like pace, set during a pivotal time in a major city. It features two officers trying to gain respect in a department that seems dead-set against having them. And it offers a gritty, uncompromising look at the clash between traditional approaches to policing – the ‘old boys’ approach – and more modern beliefs. But what’s your view? Have you read Cop Town? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 19 December/Tuesday, 20 December – We Are the Hanged Man – Douglas Lindsay
Monday, 26 December/Tuesday, 27 December – The Masala Murder – Madhumita Bhattacharya
Monday, 2 January/Tuesday, 3 January – A Three-Pipe Problem – Julian Symons