Atlanta circa 1974 definitely wasn’t the best place for a new female cop to cut her teeth. Kate Murphy, the heroine of Karin Slaughter’s latest novel Cop Town, is dispatched straight into this maelstrom of resentment and political upheaval, fresh out of what passed for training, and wearing a uniform far too large and designed for humiliation. On her first day, the only advice from her supervisor is to strap down her breasts to avoid giving her male colleagues a heart attack. Most new recruits wash out quickly, and Kate – Jewish, attractive, raised on the good side of town, but with a husband dead in Vietnam – is adamant that she won’t be one of them. What she doesn’t know is exactly how much of herself she will have to lose in order to survive.
Regular readers of Karin Slaughter will already be familiar with the themes and era in Cop Town. Slaughter stuck a tentative toe into these waters in Criminal, splitting the action there between present day and flashbacks to 1974. With Cop Town, however, she has plunged right in, creating a brand new cast of characters but returning to Criminal’s central issue: the battle facing women trying to carve out a career in a male-dominated environment whilst working in a city crippled by poverty and besieged by violence and racial tensions.
Sticking to her usual strategy, Slaughter splits Cop Town’s narrative into three points of view, neatly contrasting Kate’s deer-in-headlights vision of the Atlanta PD with that of more seasoned cop Maggie Lawson. Thrown straight in at the deep end, Kate embarks on her chosen career the day after the so-called Atlanta Shooter executes his fifth police officer. As discrepancies about this latest murder come to light, she and Maggie leave the boys to their tub-thumping and set out to investigate the leads that everyone else is ignoring. Anyone hoping for buddy movie-type bonding is going to be disappointed though; the two women are the antithesis of each other, and a large part of the novel’s tension arises from their edgy, at times downright hostile relationship. If the male officers are belligerent, dead-set on retribution, and largely drunk, the women are almost as bad. Having run a gauntlet of roaming hands and verbal abuse to reach the locker room, Kate then faces a second, more subtle but just as brutal ordeal from her female colleagues. It’s a neat and effective scene that establishes the dichotomy at the heart of the book: to succeed, Kate must chip away at everything she is, eroding those fragile parts that her enemies can prey on and carving out a new, tougher identity. In working out what of herself to sacrifice and what values to try to preserve, Kate realises she’s capable of far more than she ever would have predicted, and that not all of these changes are changes she can be proud of.
Slaughter’s third point of view belongs to Fox, the murderer at the heart of the manhunt, and it is his voice, motivations, and methodology that are perhaps the weakest elements of the novel. Obviously enamoured of her period research and determined to make that count on the page, Slaughter seems to have forgotten that she still needs a strong storyline to carry the novel through. Instead we get Fox, a walking cliché of bitterness and prejudice, conveniently obsessed with Kate, and dead set on a nefarious path. Unusually for Slaughter, the murder plotline is linear and simplistic, with few red herrings and little in the way of shocks. While you may not guess the identity of the perp, it certainly doesn’t rock your socks when he’s finally unmasked.
Although lacking in twists and turns, Cop Town is by no means an easy read. At times, the relentless barrage of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism is a little like being smacked over the head by a blunt object, while the humour that leavens the onslaught is blacker than midnight and should come with some sort of health warning. If you found the flashbacks in Criminal too raw to stomach, you’ll probably want to steer clear of this one, but if you’re in the mood for lovingly recreated period detail, a rough ride into a troubled city, and an insight into a past many would rather forget you could do a lot worse than add Cop Town to your summer reading list.
You can download a sample or purchase Cop Town by clicking here.