Karin Slaughter's been hearing it for years: She writes like a man. Women authors like her don't get called on the violence in their books nearly as much as men do. And she doesn't look like someone who traffics casually in blood, guts and guns and the killers who use them.
"I guess I should be like 600 pounds with a beard or something, with lots of leather," she says, "which would be scary."
No thanks. Fractured, the second departure from her wildly popular Grant County series, is scary enough. The novel lifts characters from her previous non-Grant County work, Triptych, and drops them into a murder/rape/kidnapping in Atlanta's tony Ansley Park neighborhood.
How the perfectly named Slaughter (it's her real name, by the way) came to be so obsessed with violent crime is a minor mystery unto itself, but what's no secret to anyone is her success at the genre. She has 13 million books in print, and Fractured, which hit bookstores this week, is poised to make another killing. It opens at the scene of the aforementioned triple crime, complicated by a struggle between one of the victims' mothers and one of the assailants. Georgia Bureau of Investigation Detective Will Trent – a holdover from Triptych – surveys the brutal sight to Slaughter's narration:
"Emma's shorts were bunched around one ankle, her feet bare. Her underwear and shirt had been yanked out of the way by her attacker. Teeth marks showed dark red against the white of her breasts. Scrapes and bruises trailed up the insides of her thighs, swollen welts showing the damage that had been done. ... There was no telling what she looked like in life. Her face was beaten so severely that the skull had collapsed on itself, obscuring the eyes, the nose. The only point of reference was the mouth, which gaped open in a toothless, bloody hole."
Slaughter answers the criticism that women get away with more by reframing how women write about violence.
"I don't think we write more graphically; I think we write with more intensity," she says. "If I want to sound really stupid and sexist, I'll make a blanket statement and say that women and men look at things differently. Men tend to look at problems and say, 'How can we solve it?' Women look at problems as in, 'Lets talk about this problem. We'll get to the solution through talking and talking about it.' When you read books by women and they're talking about this kind of violence, the fact is that we're more than likely going to be victimized in these books."
Fractured's women are a lot like its men, who are often as surprisingly vulnerable as the women are fierce. They're all fractured in some way, all flawed to serious degrees, and constantly trying to garner some measure of control over their respective situations. Sometimes it leads to power struggles. Sometimes it's just a matter of survival.
For example, Trent's dyslexia may offer him an unusual sense of observation that others lack, but his disability probably will keep him from any serious career advancement. He's tough on the outside, but his orphan background makes him vulnerable in all of his female relationships: Amanda, his GBI supervisor; Angie, his slutty vice cop of a fiancée; and Faith, the Atlanta Police Department detective assigned to his case.
While there's not as much of the sex that's popped up in some of Slaughter's previous works, the relationships among its characters are no less relevant than the violence that often brings them together. Her sympathy for her characters and the relationships are really what drives Fractured, not the novelty of a woman writing brutally about brutality. Slaughter plans a follow-up, Genesis, and already has a great line about Trent's Freudian nightmare relationships with all these women, when he tells Faith, "You know, I've only got two balls and Angie has one and Amanda has the other. You're gonna have to fight it out with them if you want one of them."
Many of Fractured's characters are loners and/or lonely, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that their creator spent a fair share of time by herself while growing up in nearby Jonesboro. The youngest of three girls, she talks of relentless teasing and torture at the hands of her sisters. She inherited her gift for storytelling from her car dealer father, and developed an independent streak early on. Slaughter was kicked out of a Christian school for ripping up a Bible ("Just acting out," she says), but is it just coincidence that one of her early boyfriends was an undertaker's trainee?
"He was just the most fascinating boy I had ever met because he talked to me about what they did at the school," she recalls. "Asking him all these questions and being told the truth was wonderful."
She remembers the effect the Atlanta child murders from 1979-81 had on her, and cites the period as an inspiration for her interest in crime – even if she was "a little white girl in the suburbs." The daughter of a storyteller with a taste for the macabre and an inherent curiosity had to wonder why so many children around her were being killed. Perhaps creating and solving other murders helps resolve this turbulent period in her childhood.
"I've always been someone who asks questions, and I think most writers are. ... I've always wanted to know how things work and why they work. That puzzle solving is something most writers have."
Fractured by Karin Slaughter. Delacorte Press. 400 pp. $25.