By Karin Slaughter
Delacorte Press, 400 pages, $26.
By Gina Webb
Troubled Southern playwright Tennessee Williams had something to say about human weakness: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”
Not much chance of that happening to anyone in “Fallen, ” Karin Slaughter’s 11th novel. Everyone has his or her demons here, whether it’s emotional and physical scars from years of abuse and neglect, or toxic codependency or old scores that may never be settled. And not all of them are bad.
Some are good ones, “the kind that make you stronger for having them.” Demons that give the characters in “Fallen” the motivation, the guts and the heart to do their jobs.
It’s a mild March afternoon when Special Agent Faith Mitchell of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reaches her mother’s house to pick up her infant daughter, Emma. She finds a bloody handprint on the door, Emma locked in a shed off the carport, a dead guy on the floor of the laundry room, the house ransacked, and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blasting from the CD player.
Probably not a band that Evelyn Mitchell, 63, would have in her collection.
Within 10 minutes of Faith’s arrival, two more men are dead, a third body shows up stuffed into the trunk of Evelyn’s car, and Evelyn, who also happens to be a former Atlanta Police Department captain, is nowhere to be found.
Her disappearance may be connected to an old case of police corruption in which Evelyn and her narcotics squad were accused of skimming millions of dollars off drug busts. Though cleared during the investigation, Evelyn maintains a secret and well-padded bank account, and it’s plain the kidnappers — who tore her house apart looking for it — think she has a lot more hidden somewhere.
“Fallen” reassembles a cast drawn from Slaughter’s last two books (”Undone, ” “Broken”): the perennially stressed-out Faith Mitchell; her partner, hunky and lovably dyslexic Special Agent Will Trent; his boss, Amanda Wagner, the GBI deputy director whose favorite sport is tormenting Will; and finally, Dr. Sara Linton, former Grant County coroner, whose relationship with Will was just beginning to sizzle when “Broken” ended.
With Faith a suspect in her mother’s case, she’s suspended from the force, leaving Will to partner with Amanda in a hunt that takes on greater urgency as we learn that most kidnapping victims are dead within 24 hours. Slaughter makes the most of the tight Saturday-to-Monday time frame, smoothly weaving together the intelligence gathering on Evelyn’s whereabouts and her kidnappers; a tense triangle between Will, Sara, and Will’s wife; and back stories that illuminate her characters’ complex relationships.
Slaughter, who lives in Atlanta, anchors the action in neighborhoods local readers will have no trouble recognizing: a crime scene in suburban Sherwood Forest; Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, where Sara works; a cabinet store/drug front on Buford Highway. And while the prison settings in Valdosta and Jackson may not be familiar to most, Slaughter’s grim descriptions prove she’s been there, seen that and asked a lot of questions about how a man could get killed just visiting, if he wasn’t careful.
Open “Fallen” to any page at random, and Atlanta history falls out. It may concern the Atlanta Police Department — for instance, the date when black police officers were first authorized to arrest whites (1962) and where they spent their days before they had their own precinct (the Butler Street YMCA).
Or it might be a character recalling where a deadly Mexican gang got its start “back in the mid-sixties at the Atlanta Pen, ” when a handful of prisoners banded together for self-protection, eventually took over from Atlanta’s Black Mafia Family, and have controlled the drug trade for 20 years.
Or, via several conversations between Will and Amanda, a glimpse of what life was like when women such as Amanda and fellow cadet Evelyn trail-blazed their way through the Atlanta Police Department and the GBI in the early ’70s, when women were trained separately from the men and given little else to do but check meters and write parking tickets.
On a more personal level, Slaughter reconstructs the war stories behind the lives of each character. Faith’s teenage mistakes still haunt her. Will — a veteran of foster homes and abuse — must finally confront his demons in the form of the all-too-familiar handicaps he’s known since childhood, before he can trust himself to fall for Sara. And Will’s luscious but feral wife, Angie, reminds us that crimes of the heart can be just as damning as the kind punishable by law.
Despite its soft underbelly, “Fallen” is a gritty page turner where the casual brutality of gangs and life on death row are rendered with chilling exactitude; its nail-biting climax will leave you paging back through the book for clues you missed. But like the best writers in the genre, Slaughter offers a deeper look at police work and crime, exploring the complicated forces and faces behind them that fall neither on the side of salvation nor damnation, but somewhere in between.
Meet the author
7 p.m. Friday, free fundraiser and book signing, Barnes & Noble at the Forum, 5141 Peachtree Parkway, Norcross. 770-978-5154, www.gwinnettpl.org/adults/karin-slaughter-fundraiser-and-book-signing.html.
Note: Signed books will be available for purchase at the event. As part of the “Save the Libraries” initiative, when customers mention the library at the time of checkout in the bookstore or cafe, anytime on July 1-2, a percentage of the sale will be donated to the library system.