Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
Killer read from Queen of Crime, but is it chiller or thriller?
Karin Slaughter is one of my favourite crime writers. So when I received a proof copy of her upcoming novel from Dead Good Books I was thrilled.
A new, standalone novel, Pretty Girls revolves around the Carrolls – a family devastated by the unsolved disappearance of eldest sister Julia. Whilst the father never gave up looking, the younger two sisters and their mother tried to move on even under the shadow of not knowing what happened to the family’s ‘golden girl’. Now 24-years since Julia went missing, a missing girl is in the news, and Claire Scott (nee Carroll) cannot help but be reminded of her sister. But when her husband is killed and she is reconnected with her estranged older sister, Lydia, she begins to learn the truth about what happened to her family.
Pretty Girls is different from Slaughter’s other books for a variety of reasons; not least that it is a standalone.
It is also the first full-length novel that’s not a procedural crime thriller. Instead, she turns her talent to a tightly plotted family tragedy told through three points-of-view. In this sense it is chillingly psychological, focusing more wholly on the interior experiences of her characters then her other books have done. For whilst her other novels are undoubtedly interested in the personal perspectives and problems of her characters, in this instance, it is safe to say Pretty Girls takes it to a different level. This is clear from the outset, where a first person narrator – quickly understood to be a diary entry written by her father – introduces the central mystery: what happened to Julia Carroll?
Following from the diarist opening, we are introduced to her leading ladies –the wealthy and well-married Claire, and her ex-addict, single-mother sister, Lydia. Without giving too much away, these two both start their narratives focused on the headline news that a young girl has gone missing. The Amber alert is out, and they are both brutally reminded of the unending horror of not knowing what happened to Julia. We therefore start with all eyes on the past, all voices narrowed on a mystery that is embryonic in its development but still nonetheless permeates every page and every sentence.
Now, there are a trio of things I love about Karin Slaughter’s novels: the characters, the ability to evoke atmosphere, and her attention to detail. These are things I admire, things I somewhat expect.
To an extent, Pretty Girls delivers.
It is a grisly, gory testament to Slaughter’s skilful ability to illustrate unimaginable torture and terror teetering on the edge of sensationalism. The characters have depth; somehow two characters that are exquisitely unlikeable in the initial chapters become fascinating by half way and sympathetic by the end. And of course, each page needs to be turned. The book is an intense thriller. A gritty, action-packed story full of twists designed to keep readers reading.
Yet there is something, a small niggling sense at least, that the novel doesn’t quite work as effectively as some of her others.
Slaughter has always been recognised for her more lurid style. She never shies away from piling on the descriptions in brutal, bloody, detail. This works exceptionally well in procedurals where criminal investigators have to get up close and personal with every tiny scrap of evidence. So for forensics like Sarah Linton and detectives like Will Trent to be confronted relentlessly with the violence and pathos of murder makes sense. It’s something I usually appreciate in her writing.
On the other hand, there are passages in Pretty Girls that feel overwrought in their brutality. This is because of the recurrence of almost identical ‘killing’ scenes. With voyeuristic glee, Slaughter replays the same images over and over, adding further gore with each repetition. Extended through the repeated images of television and video, which act as a metaphor for our insatiable social and personal desires to pry like a contemporised Pandora’s Box, there’s a point two-thirds of the way through where the imagery becomes something of a broken-record. It’s still gruesome. Still terrifyingly violent, but there’s nothing more to add. Yet still it goes on and on.
Admittedly, I can see why she does this from a writer’s perspective: it mirrors the experience of the protagonists. But as a reader, the scenes become desensitised, anaesthetised of meaning, skippable (or at least skim-readable) because there’s no additional clues actually in the barbaric act presented. The clues are after those scenes, in the moments where we return to the internal thoughts of Claire and Lydia.
It’s also in these moments that the suspense, which would normally ratchet upwards, slips. As the scenes recur, and as the images reappear, what should be a twist becomes achingly obvious. If it’s intended as dramatic irony, then that’s fantastic. Presuming this is not what she wanted however, it’s safe to say that other than one mammoth, what-the-hell moment, many of the twists are more like small, beckoning crooks of the finger. Saying that, suspense is a start-stop progress in Pretty Girls, but it’s still compelling reading. In fact, in the final chapters, readers are at serious risk of whiplash.
Another area that felt off – though I’m sure others may see it as the natural difference between stand-alone and serial – is that the characters were not as convincing as Slaughter’s others. This reaches from the under-developed and slightly predictable side characters (mainly police force), to the sisters themselves. Though they start off strong – three distinct voices are heard between father (pointedly told in the first-person), Claire and Lydia. Upper-class Atlanta contrasts starkly against working-class Atlanta between the sisters in the early chapters.
However, almost as soon as they meet their voices elide, swiftly shimmering into each other so that by half way through their mannerisms and individual idiolect vanish into one third-person style. This can make for odd changes in narration, as it’s only helpful but overt guidance from their author that keeps their closeness separate. Whilst not artless, and at times fascinating, compared to the rendering of previous protagonists (especially the love-to-hate ones like Lena Adams and Amanda Wagner), Claire and Lydia lacked distinction.
The same goes for that wonderful, brutal, tragic, deeply Southern landscape readers of Slaughter have learnt to love and fear, and which is decidedly absent. Instead, the novel deals primarily with private spaces and car journeys. Again, we can read this as a metaphor. Here we are dealing with a family saga, a tragedy that has trapped each of the characters in their own small world. Slaughter makes this explicit in the over-egged chorus around how Claire’s house reminds Lydia of a prison. Moreover, we are looking at personal journeys that are reflected in road travel. Yet the character of Atlanta, the one that’s so well-rounded it pulses within her other novels, is missing. It deprives Pretty Girls of vivacity and suspense.
By no means is Pretty Girls a bad read.
Powerful, poignant: it is brilliant though harrowing, and I sat stunned after finishing.
Slaughter’s meticulous detailing and vivid prose will keep most readers gripped – providing they have a strong stomach. For those seeking a psychological thriller you’ve come to the right place, but for Slaughter fans, it’s probably best to be aware that this is a crime master challenging herself rather than her readers.
Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter is out in the UK on 2nd July, and in the US in September, published by Penguin Random House. Hardcover Retail Price £20.00; Amazon Prime Pre-order Price Guarantee £13.60; Amazon Kindle £7.47