Fair warning: once you’ve read it, you can’t unread it.
Karin Slaughter’s latest novel Pretty Girls snatches the genre of psychological suspense and infuses it with gritty descriptions that nearly froze my face in a mask of shocked surprise. I’m not squeamish—I’m an ER doctor—but weeks later, I’m still perspiring and fluttering my hands at the thought of it. But if you like a bit of horror in your novels, this might be the book for you.
Slaughter is a master storyteller. Indisputably at the top of her genre, her work has sold more than thirty-five million copies, claiming a combined 2000 weeks on bestseller lists around the world, including 15 New York Times bestsellers. She’s perfected the art of ratcheting up tension, so that while Pretty Girls begins as a witty character-study, it finishes as a full-on heart-pounding scream fest.
The storyline alternates POVs between three narrators: Claire, a beautiful but callous trophy wife; Lydia, Claire’s caustic, less refined older sister; and Sam, their father, whose journal immortalizes his heartrending despair after the disappearance of another sister many years before. The perspectives of these three are woven together in a powerful and provocative narrative during the course of a self-directed investigation into the whereabouts of a series of missing young women in and around Atlanta. Claire’s life, which is suffused with surface perfection, abruptly boils over into flaming disarray after her husband gets amorous with her in an alley and is promptly whacked by a passing thug. After his death, one disturbing discovery follows another, and soon everything in Claire’s prosperous existence is upended as she copes with monstrous revelations concerning the people she loves most.
Why does Slaughter (yes, it’s her real name) write so unflinchingly about terrible things? She points out to me that just like, ahem, an ER doctor, her profession as a crime novelist requires some degree of anesthesia when it comes to one’s own emotional responses. She believes that portraying crime for what it is—realistically, without shortcuts—is the truest way to convey the impact on victims and families. In real life, people don’t endure sanitized versions of crime, and likewise in fiction, the emotional response of the reader is heightened by the violent details. But she doesn’t want her books to be a place of unrelenting darkness, either: she also seeks to illuminate the redemptive beauty in human nature, especially the bonds of family and friendship. In Pretty Girls, Lydia and Claire are resilient, tenacious women (like many of Slaughter’s prior female characters) who reforge their relationship after years of estrangement stemming from the tragic disruption caused by the loss of their older sister, bringing the close of the novel an optimistic warmth.
Another point Slaughter makes regarding the thriller genre is its enduring presence in the great stories of our time. Beloved classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With The Wind and The Great Gatsby all contain spectacular crimes, as do many other famous novels that aren’t automatically thought of as crime fiction. There is something elemental and compelling in stories of our responses to misdeeds.
I found Slaughter to be warm and engaging in phone conversation, and a downright hilarious speaker in person. Curious about her writing process—her novels are so well-paced—I asked her how she does it. Part of it is practice; she’s written over fifteen novels, two novellas, and multiple short stories, so she knows how to propel a story to a dynamic finish. But another part is the attention she pays to the beats of the story, with plenty of reading and rereading as she goes along to tighten and reform the plot where needed. Pretty Girls was a departure for her, since she’s known for series writing. Slaughter enjoyed writing this novel, although for her next work tentatively titled The Kept Woman, she’s returning to her Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Will Trent. When questioned about the differences between writing a series novel and a standalone, she mentioned this is the first book she’s written in which the protagonists weren’t professional investigators, making it trickier to engineer believable choices for her characters to delve into the novel’s murders. This is accomplished so skillfully that as I read it, I never questioned Claire and Lydia’s actions as they unravel the mysteries behind the disappearance of a slew of young women; instead, I found myself so invested in the fate of the characters I read the book in only two marathon settings.
Obligatory library plug: this review is part of a series I’m writing for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation’s annual fundraiser event Verse and Vino. It turns out that Karin Slaughter is a huge supporter of libraries, calling them the “multifunctional backbone of our communities.”
She’s even gone so far as to found her own library advocacy group, http://www.savethelibraries.com. (LOVE!) If you’re in Charlotte on November 5th, I hope you can attend the party to hear Slaughter speak in person. You can also read more about her at http://www.karinslaughter.com, or click HERE to buy Pretty Girls.