Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: 'Cop Town' by Karin Slaughter

Review by Susan Grigsby
Women learned to swear in the 1970s. Not that we never had before, but until the late 60s, it was rare to hear profanity from women who were still called girls if they were under 65, and ladies if they were older.
But during the 1970s, as we were moving into positions previously held only by men, we learned to become comfortable with Carlin's Seven Dirty Words, although personally, there were some that I never became comfortable using. But damn and hell, and even the f word became part of my everyday vocabulary.
As women, we walked a tightrope in those days; we started out knowing that technically, we had to be twice as good as the men, but we also needed to behave in a manner that was non-threatening to the delicate male ego, we had to be "one of the boys" without ever losing our femininity. To be unavailable sexually without being a prude. To handle the always, ever-present sexual harassment without losing your cool. Oh yeah, those were the days.

(I got one job by writing a sample article for a grocers' trade journal, explaining why their businesses would be better off by purchasing their business insurance in a single multiline package instead of separate policies. I sent it into the insurance company using only my initials and my last name. Had I used Susan instead, I doubt that I would have gotten the interview that led to the job.)
Norman Lear and Archie Bunker helped drive racial epitaphs underground. Oh, they still existed and people still used them, but not so much in polite company, and definitely not in the corporate world I occupied. Resentment of affirmative action simmered quietly in the background, which served to place additional burdens on men and women of color.
Being gay was simply not done. In 1972, one of the men I worked with took his own life when he was threatened with being outed. That was in Chicago. The atmosphere was totally different when I moved to San Francisco in 1973, except during the working day - in the corporate world, men were still not openly gay. After work it was different. Many of the men in my social circle were gay, but only after five, and that was in San Francisco.
That was the 70s in the corporate world. The white collar world. The blue collar world occupied by cops in the 70s was much rawer - it never boasted the veneer that covered the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia that existed in the white collar world. Which makes it a pretty ugly place to set a novel.
And yet, Karin Slaughter did it anyway, in her newest book, Cop Town.
Cop Town
by Karin Slaughter
Published by Delacorte Press, Random House
June 24th 2014
416 pages

Karin Slaughter writes a gritty tale. This is the first book of hers that I have ever read and although she has an ongoing series featuring Will Trent, this is a stand alone that takes place over one week in Atlanta during November of 1974.
A serial cop killer has been operating in Atlanta, and has just shot the partner of Jimmy Lawson, who has escaped with his life only because the killer's pistol jammed. Jimmy Lawson is one of the golden boys of the Atlanta PD, mentored by his uncle Terry, a bigoted alcoholic police sergeant. And then there is Maggie, Jimmy's sister, five years on the force and still treated as a girl.
Her family hates that Maggie is a cop. Her mother wants her to get a job that will allow her to meet a man and marry him before she loses her looks, which her mother feels are Maggie's greatest asset. Her uncle knows that women have no place on the police force. Nor, in his opinion do African Americans, although that is not what he calls them. And while he can't stop the APD from hiring either, he does what he can to make their working lives miserable.
The good-ol’-boy system was great so long as you were one of the boys. When Terry’s group first joined the force, black cops weren’t even allowed in the station houses. They had to hang around the Butler Street YMCA until they were called out. They were not allowed to wear their uniforms unless they were on the job. Most of them didn’t have squad cars. They were only allowed to arrest other blacks and could not take statements from or interview white people.
Now Atlanta had a black Mayor, Maynard Jackson, who appointed a black police commissioner, Reginald Eaves, who was
on a mission to break the white power structure that had controlled the Atlanta Police Department since its inception.
Suddenly, Terry Lawson had a problem with cronyism.
The morning after Jimmy's partner is killed, Kate Murphy shows up for her first day out of the Academy, where they took careful measurements for her new uniform which were clearly ignored, as her ill-fitting uniform requires three hands to hold up. Jimmy is assigned as her training officer, but he passes her off to Maggie so that he can track down the killer of his partner.
Kate comes from a financially well off Atlanta family who expected her to marry right out of school, which she did. But her husband died in Vietnam, leaving her a young widow who knew she would make a lousy secretary. And the Atlanta Police were recruiting women for motorcycle patrol. Oh, and she is Jewish. And gorgeous.
Maggie is determined to join the hunt for the shooter who almost killed her brother and finds in Kate a partner with some surprising abilities.
All of the characters are interesting if not necessarily likable. The policewomen don a hard surface to protect themselves from the verbal attacks of the bad guys as well as their fellow officers. The setting is big city gritty, with violence as common as traffic. The plot is well constructed with a powerful ending.
Throughout the story, Slaughter reveals an Atlanta Police Department, and a society at large, that is fighting the change in the power structure. It is not pretty. Just like the election of our first African American President has resulted in a backlash of racism based on the fear and hate of those who feel their power slipping away.  
In some parts of Cop Town, her depiction of the attitudes of the 70s is so honest that it takes courage to read it. There were times when I was right back in the day, ignoring the catcalls and the harassment that were simply part of life. And there were a couple of times when a note would feel off, not quite ring true. But then, I did not experience the 70s in Atlanta as a cop. Of course, after watching the protests in Ferguson and the police response, I'm not sure I had to.
It is a very timely novel, clearly not a cozy, but a police procedural that does not shy away from portraying the dark side of the thin blue line.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.