COVID-19 adds menace to Slaughter’s latest thriller

Author Karin Slaughter
Courtesy of HarperCollins
Caption
Author Karin Slaughter Courtesy of HarperCollins

Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

‘False Witness’ pits sisters against a rapist who knows their secret

Karin Slaughter puts her characters through hell.

There are no happy childhoods, just the ones that leave itchy scars everywhere, and the pervy psychopaths of nightmares stalk the shadows. In her latest novel, “False Witness” (Harper Collins, $28.99) a new, more subtle killer makes a debut: COVID-19.

As if dodging predators were not enough, now the ventilator at Grady Hospital looms in the periphery, threatening to reappear and wipe out anyone not wearing a face mask. Consider the trope of a breathless female character who twists an ankle while running from a monster. In this standalone thriller, a vulnerable woman moves excruciatingly slow because she is a “long hauler.”

“It’s not a COVID novel,” Slaughter says, “but it is a novel set during the time of COVID.” So “False Witness” functions as an era-defining time-piece, as well as a work of noirish fiction.

“Just as with the Spanish flu, polio and world wars, we look to books to find solace that resonates,” says Victoria Sanders, Slaughter’s longtime literary agent. “Writers like Karin explore the ‘every-day-ness’ of courage that helps us all endure.”

And endurance never comes easy in Slaughter’s world.

The 50-year-old Atlanta native has produced 21 books, published in 120 countries with more than 40 million copies sold, including two series and four other standalone novels. Netflix is adapting her bestseller “Pieces of Her,” but paused production because of the shutdown, and her wildly popular “Will Trent” novels, starring a sleuth who uses his dyslexia to solve crimes, have been optioned for film.

Slaughter began writing “False Witness” in March 2020

“You’d think the shutdown might have made it easier for writers because we’re all cooped up indoors with fewer distractions,” she says. “It wasn’t, though. I was too distressed and worried about everybody, which affected my concentration.”

Nevertheless, “False Witness” may be her most ambitious tale to date.

Two sisters grapple with their past while playing cat-and-mouse with a rapist who knows a secret. The pandemic is another bad break in an Atlanta hellscape of sketchy neighborhoods and shooting galleries. Face masks make a handy narrative device. Heroes tend to wear them, no matter what else they are doing, while villains do not. Hand sanitizer flows almost as much as blood.

As usual, Slaughter probes deeper into some of the bigger problems highlighted by the coronavirus, such as the housing crisis, food insecurity, underfunded schools, the treatment of inmates in prisons, the travails of addiction and, most of all, the chasm between the haves and have-nots. A foul-mouthed QAnon adherent is perhaps the most vivid — and oddly endearing — character in the perverse parade, though Slaughter stops just short of naming the conspiracy theory.

Courtesy of Harper Collins
Caption
Courtesy of Harper Collins

“I try to present different points of view, even if I don’t agree with them,” she says.

Clearly socially conscious but never overt in her politics (“I don’t want to stand in the way of the story,” she says), Slaughter has established a long through-line of scrappy feminist survival in the face of lethal misogyny. Pity the long-suffering female characters, but know they prevail to bury their assailants, after incurring some whiplash from unpredictable plot twists. Slaughter’s novels are a little like Lifetime movies in this respect, minus the sap. The stories build up trepidation, like incremental doses of arsenic.

“I think the main thing that connects my books is that almost all of my characters are dealing with trauma,” Slaughter says. “Even when we catch up with them as adults, they still are dealing with trauma and its after-effects.”

She recalls a memory that influenced her thinking.

“At Sunday dinner, my grandmother would always have bruises and other injuries and the joke was that she was just clumsy,” Slaughter says. “My grandfather was beating the hell out of her. But there was silence around the subject, just as there is often silence around the bad things that happen to women. And the silence protected nobody but my grandfather. As a writer, I wanted to explore those dynamics.”

Slaughter otherwise had a happy childhood, growing up in Lake Spivey near Jonesboro as the youngest of three girls. “My father would tell stories that scared the crap out of us,” she says.

At five-foot-four, she is a petite ash-blonde with a mischievous smirk. Like a portrait in a haunted house, her eyes seem to follow you from her dustjacket. She was not always a sadistic puppet-master of her characters, though. While doing odd jobs to support herself (including pest control and painting houses), she got her start by writing a “Gone with the Wind”-inspired novel set in the antebellum South called “Spit in One Hand.”

“It was good, very well-written, and I knew I had found a talented young writer, maybe another Harper Lee,” says Sanders. “There just wasn’t a big market for that kind of thing at the time. So, I suggested a thriller, not even thinking about her last name.”

The Anglo-Saxon surname “Slaughter” likely derives from an ancestor who got his hands bloody for a living, and the novelist has lived up to it by making a killing. Her first thriller, “Blindsighted,” published in 2001, was part of a trio of books that earned a headline-making six-figure advance, placing her among the highest-paid writers in the world. She consistently crests the best-seller lists and transcends the genre label among most critics.

“I don’t think Karin gets enough credit for tying all these books together,” says novelist Alafair Burke. “In the way Michael Connelly has created a world of characters that all live in Connelly’s Los Angeles, every story Karin tells is grounded in Slaughter’s Georgia.”

Slaughter’s fans are intense, and expressive, particularly in Europe. “False Witness” currently holds the No. 1 ranking in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium. She is the only author ever to have been recognized four times by Amsterdam’s Crimezone Thriller Awards, and she has received France’s prestigious Prix des Lecteurs. She even has her own line of whimsical merchandise, including a cuddly Teddy bear in a shirt emblazoned with “I Got Slaughtered” in spattered red letters.

“She is such a rock star that traveling in Europe with Karin is like being with Elvis or Mick Jagger,” Sanders says. “People mob her. Teenage girls will stop what they’re doing and scream their heads off at her in the street.”

The pandemic put all of that on hold, of course. Never one to let down her readers, though, Slaughter became a fixture on Zoom and Instagram, where she played at learning foreign languages, chit-chatted with fellow writers, read fan mail aloud and gaily sported goofy hats, just to break the monotony. “Zoom can be so boring,” she says, “but we can still be human on it and have a good time, even when we’re trapped at home.”

Slaughter so far has dodged the virus, but her sister struggled with it for months before recovering. Now the author is looking forward to touring at some point — maybe in autumn.

“Bookstores in the Netherlands are still closed,” she says. “I won’t go somewhere to promote a book and celebrate when so many people are still suffering.” Filming is expected to resume soon on the Netflix series, which boasts some marquee names. Toni Collette stars, with direction from Lesli Linka Glatter of “Mad Men,” “Homeland” and “Twin Peaks.” It will be filmed around Savannah and Atlanta, and Slaughter plans to visit the set, though she did not contribute to the screenplay.

“At this point, I am just taking everything day by day,” she says, “like everybody else.”

AUTHOR EVENTS

Karin Slaughter

Book signing. 6:30 p.m. July 19. $32, includes book; registration required. Foxtale Book Shoppe, 105 E. Main St., Woodstock. foxtalebookshoppe.com

In conversation with Alafair Burke. 7 p.m. July 20. Free. Virtual via Crowdcast. Register at www.crowdcast.io/e/falsewitness.

In conversation with Jackie Cooper. 7 p.m. July 27. Free. Virtual via Crowdcast. Register at www.crowdcast.io/e/slaughterlibraryevent/register.