Monday, 30 March 2009

Book reviews: "Triptych", by Karin Slaughter

I've not read any of Karin Slaughter's books before, and Şencan warned me that it would be a bloodbath. So it turned out to be.

The book starts off at a frightening pace. A prostitute is found murdered on the stairwell of a run-down block of flats in Atlanta. Jaded Detective Michael Ormewood is called in to investigate, and he is soon joined by Special Agent Will Trent. From the start, the two policemen do not get on. It is exceptionally fast-paced, indeed, it is a little too much so, and I had to start reading it twice after I lost track. Additionally, the initial part of the story is written from Ormewood's perspective, and at this point he is a thoroughly dislikeable character.

The story improves when John Shelley is introduced as a sub-plot. John is in his mid-thirties, and just out of jail after having spent twenty years inside for the rape and murder of a schoolgirl. Soon he discovers that someone is using his name and social security number, and has a perfect credit rating. John is a very well-drawn character; the crime he was convicted for is truly heinous, but so are his tales from prison. As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that he may not have been guilty of the crime he was convicted of. This part of the story is told very well, and the ambiguity of his guilt is beguiling. The cleverness of the writing means that he is an utterly sympathetic character, even if you believe he is guilty.

After this point, the story takes off and becomes a riveting read. It is sparsely written, and the action carries you on. It jumps through time from the present to the past, ye this never gets confusing; it is always obvious which time you are in.

The major problem with the book is its use of stereotypes. There are two disparate detectives who do not get along or trust each other, and a murderer who strikes rather to close to home. It gets worse when you examine Ormewood's character - he runs the full gamut of family problems (a disabled child, a wife who is falling out of love with him, and a neighbour it appears that he is having an affair with).

All of the major characters are broken. Whilst all literary characters should be flawed in some way, the flaws in these characters go so much deeper than just a drink problem or a failed relationship. Unfortunately, rather than giving the characters depth, it makes them feel a little like caricatures. Only John feels like a real human being.

The entire feel of the book is dark and foreboding. Some of the descriptions of the victims' injuries are fairly gruesome, and perhaps unnecessarily so. The story could have been equally well told without it. Frankly, it did not shock or horrify me; I just found it bland and distasteful.

This was an entertaining book to read, despite its dark atmosphere. I would give it three out of five. This would have been four out of five if it were not for the first couple of chapters, which were far poorer than the rest of the book. If there was a sequel to this stand-alone novel, I would read it.


rfwitch said...

It says something that the most sympathetic character in your book is an apparent rapist/killer. Joking aside, she does manage to convey sympathy for what he goes through, and the tension is very gradually built up, his history is revealed, as well as his more recent problems. Actually, he is not the only sympathetic character. I enjoyed reading about the detective with dyslexia, and all the methods he employs to keep this a secret. It's been a while since I read the book, but I remember one thing: he is instinctively aware who would use his problem against him if they knew. Ms Slaughter convinces the reader that this is an accurate assesment of his situation. I was simultaneously appalled by the thought and fascinated by the author built up this character.

Completely off-topic, another book I thought brilliant, and that also deals with how illiteracy can mould a character, is 'A Judgement In Stone' by Ruth Rendell. The character there is not dyslexic. She is not a tragic heroine, struggling to overcome a disability or difficulty. She is a reppellent person who commits a disgusting act of violence because of her illiteracy, and is oh so convincingly drawn. (BTW, I haven't spoilt anything, this is not a whodunit, her crime is recounted in the first sentence of the book)

Anyway, back to Triptych. Karin Slaughter is of the OTT gore school of crime-writing. It seems almost pornographic to me. Actual horror writers seem to have a limit on the pain they'll show and the guts they'll spill. KS usually outdoes them. In this book, I felt she'd eschewed much of her put-your-wellies-on bloodbaths and mutilations for more mundane horrors. But it wouldn't be KS without stuff that makes your stomach churn. The total effect is more unsettling than her other books, IMO. This is not escapist fiction, unless your life is like a Tarantino film with all the introspective bits taken out.

I think I need to get my own blog. Sorry.

David Cotton said...

Yes, the horror is almost pornographic - that's a very good way of putting it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it failed to do anything for me.

The dyslexic aspect of that character seemed unnecessary, especially as the handicap did not really take the story forward to any great degree. It would have been preferable if the author hadn't made him dyslexic - after all, the character had plenty of other baggage to contend with.

You could write an entire book based around a detective who had learnt to hide his dyslexia; it did not need to be shoehorned into this one.

Again, I turn back to the point that all the main characters in this book were fundamentally broken. It would have been nice for one of them to have had less of a terrible history, if only to provide a counterpoint to the others. Sometimes such a contrast can be very fulfilling for the reader - the 'innocent abroad' affect.

As for 'Judgement in Stone'; in my opinion that is a far more frightening book than Triptych. The main character is chillingly understandable at the same time as being repellent. Her demons are all of her own making.

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