by Amanda Kyle Williams
336 pages; Bantam Books
Summer is here and murder is back, just the way we like it. Chief among the perpetrators: Karin Slaughter and Amanda Kyle Williams, two Atlanta crime writers with strong female protagonists who make the city and its countryside their beat.
Slaughter’s 14th book since 2001, “Cop Town,” takes place in 1974. Williams’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is the third installment in her series featuring Keye Street, the Chinese-American profiler and “dry alcoholic” who circulates in the present-era, tracking down predatory maniacs and making them pay.
Forty years separate the action of these thrillers, and it’s possible to see, at ground level, just how much Georgia’s metropolitan galaxy has stayed the same. As a wise man in “Cop Town” asks: “There is no such thing as one city…what Atlanta is the real Atlanta?”
While “Cop Town” may be Slaughter’s first “stand alone” novel not part of a series, we should expect to see more from the unlikely team of Maggie Lawson, the veteran cop from a clan of policemen living in Grant Park, and Kate Murphy, a rookie “rich girl” from a Jewish family in Buckhead, whose husband was killed in Vietnam.
“Cop Town” unfolds just as the city has elected its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Federal money is pouring in, and opportunities for blacks and women are improving. But there is predictable resentment from the Atlanta Police Department’s white power structure.
“The hardest battles didn’t take place in the streets,” Slaughter writes. “They happened inside the squad room.” The gay policemen live in constant fear of exposure; the straight cops make brutal “fairy runs” to Piedmont Park. Black and white policewomen separate themselves from each other by a curtain inside their tiny changing room. Amid an avalanche of crude patriarchal chatter, Kate Murphy is humiliated on her first day, forced to wear a ridiculously oversized men’s uniform.
Against this tumultuous background, a gunman has murdered five policemen. “The Shooter” is a kill-crazy Viet vet who hates Jews, stalks Kate and feels a “pressure” down there. “Cop Town’s” story line is mostly Kate and her reluctant guardian Maggie in pursuit of The Shooter, whose true identity remains concealed until the showdown at the Howell Wye, Atlanta’s enormous railroad interchange.
When it comes to foul language, Slaughter has a good ear. She takes great delight in a lurid soft encounter (on the counter) between Kate and Dr. Van Zandt, a.k.a.“Dr. Van Zipless.” And she goes curvilinear with a pimp named Sir Chic, who wears white boots with gold tips and lives with his “mother,” Eduardo, a Portuguese “tranny” who speaks occasional Yiddish.
On the other side, Kate’s Dutch mother and grandmother, survivors of Auschwitz, are beautifully rendered secondary characters. One explains to Kate, “Evil people can do good. Good people can do evil. Why does this happen sometime? Because it’s Tuesday.”
Looking backward, as the city limits of “Cop Town” recede, conciliations between race, gender, and sexuality seem a fairly dim prospect for Atlanta in 1974. Welcome then to the 21st century of Amanda Kyle Williams, who locates Keye Street in the Midtown of now, with its creative class of Bohemians and young professionals.
Keye drives a 1969 convertible white Impala, which is “a bad idea for a tail.” She lives at the Georgian Terrace with a dog named White Trash; her boyfriend, detective Aaron Rauser, has a miniature poodle inherited from a serial killer. There are infrequent taunts regarding her Asian status, and she thinks of herself as “Southern.” They may call her a “damn foreigner in most parts of Georgia,” but she sounds “like a hick everywhere else in the world.”
Keye’s addiction blew up her marriage and got her fired as a brilliant up-and-coming F.B.I. criminal investigative analyst. For the moment, she has battled the bottle to a draw, though in “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” her craving remains so constant that even the drooping Hydrangeas “[look] like they could use a drink.” Now she has to settle for “the rush every investigator gets when they know something’s about to happen.” She ventures into the state’s rural hamlets to stare down cruel death and temptation and, when possible, to corral psychopaths like the “Wishbone Killer.” “The Georgia woods,” Keye remarks, “have a lot to hide.”
In “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” the setting is the small town of Whisper, on the shores of Lake Oconee near Milledgeville. Whisper may have a pleasant exterior, but there’s something “dark-hearted” here. Two bodies have been found in a nearby forest, 13-year-old girls murdered 10 years apart. The handsome county sheriff, Ken Meltzer, summons Keye to help hunt down the murderer.
The townspeople and Meltzer’s detectives don’t much like this big-city outsider, and when Keye walks into Whisper’s Silver Spoon diner, “a hush as loud as a foghorn settled over the room.” She begins poking around and soon enough another teenage girl, Skylar, goes missing in circumstances similar to the earlier victims.
Keye begins interrogating a list of suspects. Whoever the killer and kidnapper might be, she tells Meltzer, “He’s thinking about us thinking about him.” Keye experiences sudden bursts of cerebral analysis as she speculates on the psychology of a madman who is evolving, torturing his victim and hiding in plain sight. (“Nothing is more invisible than the everyday,” observes Keye.) In the race to find Skylar, “the clock is a ticking time bomb.”
Keye’s attraction to the sheriff creates an emotional tangle that complicates the investigation, threatening the relationship back home with her boyfriend. When it comes to sexual tension, Williams keeps the heat on a slow cook (whereas Slaughter will throw the whole cow in the oven).
Keye Street may demonstrate an unapologetic vulnerability, but she never hesitates to leave her quarry with a surfeit of lead. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” follows a twisty path toward multiple unexpected shocks.
“Karin Slaughter and Amanda Kyle Williams are smart detective novelists of international rank who are not afraid to tackle the worst that humanity has to offer, just so the rest of us can have our fine little saucers of cream. Neither refrains from an occasional screwball hilarity that makes “Cop Town” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” such perpetual reading pleasures. If at times, slight dunes of melancholy sweep around their heroines’ broken heels, making them seem to momentarily weaken, please be advised: Down Georgia’s boulevards and flat back roads, mean women must go.