Karin Slaughter - A killer crime writer

Metro Atlanta author who slays fictional folks fights to save real libraries
Author Karin Slaughter
Courtesy of HarperCollins

Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Author Karin Slaughter Courtesy of HarperCollins

Who is Karin Slaughter and why is she creating such mayhem all over metro Atlanta?

She bumped off a 15-year-old Decatur High School cheerleader and framed a teenage boy for the brutal murder.

She entombed a woman in a Rockdale County torture chamber, then mowed her down with a car when she managed to escape.

She arranged for a Georgia Tech student to be strangled in an Ansley Park mansion where he’d been trying to stop a kidnapping — a kidnapping she’d arranged.

Don’t bother calling a cop. Slaughter’s criminal masterminding is all a work of fiction. And she’s definitely on law enforcement’s radar already. Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan’s wife, along with some of his top agents, are big fans of the petite blonde author, whose 10 densely plotted thrillers boast some 20 million copies in print worldwide and could become the basis for a TV series.

“I kept getting Google alerts a couple of years ago for this [agent] Will Trent fellow I didn’t know,” said longtime GBI spokesman John Bankhead. “I even checked my Rolodex, but we had no agent by that name.”

First things first: Yes, in a stroke of luck that’s gotta be the envy of rappers and Dickens characters everywhere, Slaughter really is her last name.

And “that Will Trent fellow?” He may be one of her more endearing creations. A deceptively kind, quietly shrewd GBI agent who skillfully closes cases while hiding his severe dyslexia from even his closest colleagues, Trent first showed up four books ago.

That’s when Slaughter relocated her plot lines from Grant County, a fictional place she’d dreamed up and plopped down somewhere vaguely between Augusta and Savannah. Book No. 11, “Fallen,” opens in one of those only-in-Atlanta-type places — near Friar Tuck Road and Lady Marian Lane in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood — and is due out in June.

In the meantime, Jonesboro native Slaughter has found something else worthy of a major rescue effort:


Author Karin Slaughter gets a shooting lesson from GBI Inspector John Heinen. The man in the blue shirt is GBI director Vernon Keenan.

Credit: John Bankhead, GBI

Credit: Credit: John Bankhead, GBI

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Credit: Credit: John Bankhead, GBI

A library lover

“Libraries, and librarians, do the Lord’s work,” Slaughter, 40, said over coffee recently in her Virginia-Highland neighborhood, where — no “Not In My Backyard” hypocrite she — a woman was abducted from her “deceptively small-looking Midtown bungalow” in “Undone” (2009). “There’s no argument against a library. Republicans read. Liberals read. It’s probably the one place in America that’s still open to everyone, no questions asked.”

Yet libraries increasingly are under economic siege, a case Slaughter makes on SaveTheLibraries.com, the website of a campaign she’s spearheading and quite literally giving the shirt off her back. Since last fall, all proceeds from sales of her “I Got Slaughtered” T-shirts, totes, teddy bears and doggy bowls have gone to the Decatur Public Library; this Saturday, she’ll headline “A Mysterious Evening,” a fund-raiser for the DeKalb County Public Library, alongside her good friend Kitty.

That’s best-selling author Kathryn Stockett to you and me. With her book “The Help” nestled at or near the top of hardcover sales lists for close to 100 weeks now, and a film version set for release next summer, Atlanta resident Stockett qualifies as a major “get.”

“I threatened her,” Slaughter, who in person looks about as threatening as Meg Ryan, admitted cheerfully. “I said, ‘You’d better do it or I’ll kill you.’ ”

Apparently, Slaughter is very hard to say no to. Not that they’d ever want to, said Donna Brazzell, executive director of the DeKalb Library Foundation. The foundation hopes to raise at least $30,000 from the event, which also features best-selling Atlanta novelist Mary Kay Andrews and a silent auction.

“She approached us. We were thrilled,” said Brazzell, still sounding slightly stunned by this sudden influx of positive news and attention for a library system that had 3.3 million user visits last year, yet has seen its budget for books and materials drop by 85 percent since 2008. “The American Library Association has just started a new program to encourage authors to speak out on behalf of libraries. So Karin is way ahead of the curve here.”

In fact, Saturday is the first of what Slaughter hopes will become a series of events in which a group of top authors join together and “adopt” libraries in different parts of the country for fund-raisers. A second one is planned, tentatively for June, in Boston, and she’ll be there with the superstar author of “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island.”

“Dennis Lehane said, ‘It’s an easy “yes” for a library,’ ” Slaughter recalled.

Author Karin Slaughter. (Photo: Jenni Girtman)

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A natural at crime

Here’s what’s not so easy at first: Reconciling this friendly, generous version of Karin Slaughter with the author whose fictional killers do unimaginable things involving trash bags (2009’s “Undone”) or victims’ tongues (2006’s “Triptych”).

But then, she’s been confounding expectations ever since her first novel, a sweeping saga about two families from the pre-Civil War era to the 1970s, failed to find a publisher 12 years ago.

“Like any good Southern girl, I wanted to write the next ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but I don’t think anybody can do that,” said Slaughter.

She decided to attempt a mystery/thriller next. “My agent said, ‘Well, try it. And if it’s not good, we’ll try something else.’ So, in like a month, I wrote what became ‘Blindsighted.’ ”

With its detailed description of a blind woman’s raped and fatally stabbed body, “Blindsighted” introduced readers to the appealing character of Grant County coroner Sara Linton (who, in a later book, moves to Atlanta and takes a job in Grady Hospital’s ER). It also quickly established Slaughter as a thriller writer who doesn’t unduly glamorize crime or criminals. But she also understands the appeal such subject matter holds for readers and doesn’t apologize for joining what she describes as a long-standing literary tradition.

“There’s a reason ‘Beowulf’ survived. Go back 200 years and look at the most popular books and they all have some element of crime, some element of violence,” said Slaughter, who attended Georgia State but left without graduating after taking every available English department course. “‘Water for Elephants’ opens with a really violent murder and ‘The Lovely Bones’ is about a pedophile. There’s even a murder in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”

‘Deep, dark secrets’

Meanwhile, Slaughter’s regular insertion of gallows humor and human frailty into her storylines is a welcome, edifying variation on the usual thriller format: Her characters suffer from eating disorders and learning disabilities; Will’s partner, Atlanta cop turned GBI agent Faith Mitchell, can convince even hardened perps to talk, but usually can’t get her own teenage son to answer her with anything other than monosyllables and heavy sighs; office politics color everything from which sheriff’s department has jurisdiction over what crime scene to whether employees of the “Gorilla Car Wash” should have to share tip money or lunch spots with each other.

From that Piedmont Road landmark to the “Where Everybody’s Somebody” sign in Snellville, Slaughter’s books manage to turn metro Atlanta — in all its humid, traffic-snarled, grudge-holding, gossipy glory — into an almost irresistible character in its own right.

“I’m not writing about perfect characters,” Slaughter confirmed. “I think that’s from being a Southerner. Every Southerner I know at one point or another went to church with their grandma to be shown off to everyone there. My grandmother would introduce me and say, ‘This is Miss Harris,’ and as soon as she turned back [to me], she’d say, ‘She’s a drinker’ or ‘Did you know her husband’s cheating on her?’

“So I just grew up thinking everyone had deep, dark secrets, no matter what they look like in their Sunday finest. And that’s what I write about.”

And that may be the best argument yet for our still needing writers and libraries.