Monday, August 28, 2017
my review of Karin Slaughter's The Good Daughter from the Weekend Australian:
James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance did much to discourage casual visitors from travelling to small-town Georgia. I imagine Karin Slaughter’s new novel The Good Daughter will have Georgia tourism operators similarly tearing out their hair. The book takes place in fictional (I hope) Pikeville, a town with more than its fair share of drunks, bullies, racists, rapists and drug dealers.
The story begins on St Patrick’s Eve 1989 with such an intimate portrait of a loving, interesting family that you just know something terrible is going to happen. This is a Karin Slaughter novel and she has never been one to shy away from nominative determinism, but even I wasn’t quite expecting the brutality of the opening prologue.
Rusty Quinn is Pikeville’s public defender. He’ll take on your case even if you have no money and even if the odds are stacked against you. Unfortunately for him and his family this means his clients are mostly low-life scum who can’t even pay their bills.
Rusty’s wife, Gamma, is a charming and brilliant ex-NASA scientist who tells her two daughters, Charlotte, 13, and Samantha, 15, that when they grow up they should take any job anywhere as long as it’s far away from corrupt and parochial Pikeville.
Gamma is funny and clever but her self-preservation instincts are maybe not up there with the reader’s. When Rusty defends an accused rapist of a popular local girl who went on to hang herself, it’s no surprise the Quinns get firebombed out of their home and are subjected to a blizzard of threatening phone calls.
When Rusty wins the case and there are rumours of a lynch mob floating around, this would be the time most of us might take the kids on that long-put-off trip to Disney World.
Alas, Gamma and her two girls stay put and in a horrific 10 pages or so one of Randy’s old clients, Zack Culpepper, and his brother break into the house wearing ski masks and toting shotguns. Randy isn’t home and a desperate Gamma tries to placate the gunmen, begging them not to harm her daughters.
Zack, however, cannot be placated and he shoots Gamma dead on the kitchen floor before marching the girls out to the corn field. Zack is a dumb criminal but with some animal cunning he has sensed the public mood and has realised the Quinns might just be victims of a revenge attack. He and his brother aren’t remotely interested in revenge but in the stack of cash Rusty keeps in his office for paying bail bonds. Charlotte figures all this out in the seconds before she is shot and tossed into a shallow grave.
Cut to 28 years later.
Samantha and Charlotte (known now as Charlie) have survived and become lawyers. Sam is a rich patent attorney in New York while Charlotte, the good daughter, has stayed in Pikeville to follow in their father’s footsteps. Charlie is at a school shooting in which a “low functioning” 18-year-old kills the school principal and another child. Because Charlie is a witness she can’t take the case. Up to the plate steps 74-year-old Rusty, who defends the girl and again invites the collective wrath of Pikeville.
There are quite a few twists and turns and Charlie ends up on the case anyway, and in a shrewd move on Slaughter’s part she spends some of the second half of the book at war with her sister, who despises her father for the “weakness” that brought death and destruction to their happy family.
What’s great about The Good Daughter is Slaughter’s clever meta-textual undermining of a trope we are familiar with: the young daughter of the decent southern lawyer who works as a public defender of men accused of terrible crimes.
Early on, Slaughter name-checks Clarence Darrow but she might as well throw in Atticus Finch, too, because that’s who we’re all thinking about. She has a lot of fun with the idea that maybe some of those men Rusty skilfully defends aren’t worth the trouble he takes.
Slaughter’s fictions are a considered literary extension of the southern gothic style made famous by Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Ellen Glasgow. O’Connor indeed provides the book’s epigraph and during the heated fights between the sisters I was half expecting one of them to quote Quentin Compson’s famous “I don’t hate the South!” from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom!, but Slaughter adeptly pilots us away from that cliche without injury.
The Good Daughter is maybe a bit overlong and a trifle overbaked, but as blockbuster fare and beach-reading material this is one of Slaughter’s best books yet.
Adrian McKinty is author of the Sean Duffy series of crime novels.
The Good Daughter
By Karin Slaughter
HarperCollins, 512pp, $27.99