Cross-posted on my Goodreads.
I made the fatal mistake of starting this at bedtime and could not put it down until 3 am when my eyes started burning. I finished it in a day and have been thinking about it since. This was my first Karin Slaughter title, but certainly not my last. For the first few pages, I was a little skeptical, because she was descriptive in a distracting way. I don’t know if she cooled it with the adjectives or if I just got used to it, but within a few pages, that was the last thing on my mind. She wastes no time in getting to the action and she manages to thoroughly introduce the characters in a succinct way that leads right into the precipitating event. Even if you are used to reading thrillers, I doubt you will be entirely prepared for the intensity of the content and pacing at the start of this. Fifteen pages in the characters’ entire lives are upended completely when two masked strangers enter their home and the following forty-five pages describe most people’s worst nightmares come to life. Since this book has disturbing content I am going to provide trigger warnings at the end of the review with some page ranges. Also, note that if it is mentioned in the book’s description then I do not consider it a spoiler. If you are sensitive to violence and unsure whether or not you should pick up this book after reading the warnings, I would air on the side of caution and skip it.
This story has two main characters, Samantha and Charlotte Quin, who are 15 and 13-year-old sisters living in a town called Pikeville. At the beginning of the book, their family is adjusting to staying in a janky farmhouse after they lose everything in a house fire, and their father is partly to blame. Rusty is a largely despised defense attorney who is known for taking on the nastiest of clients and winning impossible cases. He’s good at what he does so it’s gained him a lot of enemies, and one of them is responsible for burning down the Quin’s home. In the first fifteen pages of the book, we meet the family through Sam’s eyes. Their mother, Gamma, is an exceptionally intelligent and independent woman whose parenting style could best be described as “no bullshit”. She loves her girls though, and Sam’s admiration for her mother is evident from the start. So when Sam and Charlotte watch as two intruders storm into their home and kill Gamma in cold blood, it is devastating, and the horror that the two of them live through in the aftermath is hard to read. The story picks up again twenty-eight years later with Charlotte working as a lawyer in Pikeville right alongside her dad while also coping with her recent separation from her husband Ben. As quickly as the author jumps from 1989 to 2017, Charlotte finds herself in the middle of another tragic event and reliving the worst day of her life. Vivid memories drag up secrets long since buried, and she is faced with a disturbing case to solve that may turn everything upside down.
There are so many things I liked about this book, but what stuck out to me about it is the way that Slaughter writes about trauma. I’ve read many stories where the main character has survived a traumatic event, but I’ve never seen an author so eloquently describe more than one response to the same experience. Both at the moment of the tragedy and in the years that follow the way that the survivors adapt to and process what has happened to them is quite different. Charlie screams bloody murder, her flight instinct kicks in, and then she goes into a state of shock. Sam is too stunned to scream, gives up any hope of saving herself, and then just as quickly starts to fight for her life. For years Charlie lives with the details of what happened to her that night, while Sam is missing all but bits and pieces of her memory. The moments that were the most devastating are blocked out, leaving just the sound of a scream, the scent in the air, and the desperate feeling she had to keep her sister safe. As adults, the ways that they approach relationships, view revenge, and talk about that night vary as well. I found the way that Slaughter described the events and the character’s experience of them to be strikingly realistic, which is what makes this such a compelling read.
The case that the Quin’s get involved in as adults, while unrelated to what they lived through as children, dregs up a lot of hostility from the town surrounding what happened to them. After the time jump, Charlotte is present at the scene of a violent crime that puts the whole town in an uproar. To her surprise, dear old dad believes that the culprit may actually be innocent, despite all evidence to the contrary. Before she knows it she’s caught up in an investigation that seems to bring about more questions than answers. And of course, it won’t be easy trying to find the truth in her hometown. You would think that the community’s rage would’ve been directed toward the men who attacked the Quin family in 89’, but Rusty’s negative reputation led the citizens of Pikeville to believe that they framed one of the men involved and were responsible for putting him on death row. Even so many years later they are despised and harassed for supposedly lying in court about that night. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the local DA’s office and police force are made up of dirty cops who have never had any trouble dealing out justice as they see fit. Slaughter’s description of one of the lawyers in town describes Pikeville’s politics best, “Newton was one of those prototypical old white men who ran most of the small towns in America. Ben had once said that all they had to do was wait for racist, sexist old bastards like Newton to die. What he hadn’t realized was that they kept making new ones” (p. 429). The people who are supposed to be serving their community really just continue to abuse their positions of power. These are things that we as readers know to be true even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, but when you’ve experienced violence like Charlotte has, you recognize how this culture works in direct opposition to survivors healing and receiving justice. Then you add on the fact that Rusty has represented clients charged (and often guilty of) violent crimes and is adamant that everyone has a right to representation and a fair trial. That is a difficult pill to swallow when you’ve been through something like what the Quin sisters have, and Charlotte isn’t so sure his client is innocent. However, the attorney in her knows that no matter how horrific the crime, every person has the right to legal representation and that if she doesn’t find out the truth, no one else will. It puts her in a bit of a moral dilemma and leaves old wounds aching, but she knows that she won’t stop until she knows what really happened regarding both her present case and the night her mother was murdered.
This book had me hooked the entire time. I love crime novels and darker fiction and this one is definitely one of the best in those categories. I thought that the characters were realistic, the mystery unfolded nicely, and appreciated the few light moments sprinkled in here and there for a rare laugh. Charlotte and Sam had several good lines that made me actually laugh out loud and then immediately wonder if I was going to hell for laughing at such a twisted joke. I know that I’ll think of those quotes in the future and still laugh about them because they were so unexpected in the midst of a dark story. Finally, I enjoyed how Charlotte and Sam’s relationship with each other developed and how Rusty played a significant part in that as well. Normally I read a lot of romantic suspense, so taking a break from that to read one where the focus is on a sibling (and father-daughter) relationship was a cool change. There’s probably a lot more I could say but this is already a long review so I’ll just end this by saying that this could end up being one of my top books of the year and I’ve only read nine so far. A well-deserved five stars!
TRIGGER WARNINGS BELOW
Pages 17-39, 184-203, 404-418: Blood gore, gun violence, broken bones, bodily fluids, claustrophobia, suffocation, the verbal threat of sexual abuse, mention of sexual assault, mention of suicide, loss of a family member, murder, murder of a child from gun violence, school shooter.
Pages 404-418: ALL of the above with the addition of a graphic description of sexual assault
Page 377: Death (in hospital)
Pages 490-500: Mention of confirmed sexual assault of a minor, mention of infidelity, followed by a completed suicide by gunfire
NOTE: This is NOT an inclusive list of every potential trigger. There is mention of other subjects that readers may find disturbing. There are mentions of a stabbing, suspected child abuse, injuries, and gun violence at various points in the book. If any of the above triggers concern you, it is likely there could be other possible triggers on pages I haven’t mentioned. Read at your own discretion.