Saturday, September 6, 2014

#44 [2014/CBR6] "Cop Town" by Karin Slaughter

Before reading Cop Town (2014), I was unfamiliar with Karin Slaughter and not looking to read any bestselling thrillers. But then I happened to see the author on television, talking about her latest book. Slaughter mentioned that she set Cop Town in Atlanta, Georgia in 1974 because she was interested in the restrictions and challenges facing women in that period. She talked about women not being able to find housing or even get a credit card without their husband's approval. A restrictive society, indeed, and only a couple of years before I was born. I hadn't heard enough to learn anything else about the book, but the historical [no matter how recent] struggles of women always grabs my attention.

The story revolves around the lives of two women who work for the Atlanta Police Department. Maggie Lawson has been on the department for about five years--since she turned eighteen. She's grown up in the environment--both her uncle and brother also work for the force. Maggie has something of a hardscrabble, working-class background. She lives with her family, and gives her salary to her uncle. She is strong and smart, and you'd think her family connections would help her on the police force. Unfortunately, her uncle is a raging, abusive asshole who does not want Maggie around. Her brother, a high school football hero and the darling of the force, is only inconsistently tolerant of her.

On the other hand, Kate Murphy grew up wealthy and Jewish in the nice part of town. Her mother and grandmother are survivors of the Holocaust. Kate is well educated and unfamiliar with this new atmosphere filled with coarse, racist, and sexist cops. But her husband died in Vietnam and she couldn't find any other job that she could stick with. After seeing an article in the paper about women motorcycle cops, Kate is intrigued and decides to join the force.

The book takes place over only four days and begins on Kate's first day on the streets. After an introductory hazing by Maggie's brother, Kate is pawned off as a partner to Maggie. The cops are up in arms because there is a serial cop killer on the loose, and the fifth cop had just been shot in the head the night before. Maggie isn't a gentle mentor: she doesn't like Kate and doesn't think she's going to last, but she gives her some helpful advice. The mystery unfolds as Kate and Maggie struggle to find the serial killer before another cop is killed.

This book was dark and gritty with a lot of violence and actions that made me squirm. I kept thinking of it as a movie, and imagining something like End of Days but with women. Most of the characters are hard and hateful and every character in the book did something I disagreed with by the end.

The mystery part of this novel was fine. There were some clues along the way, and I didn't figure it out until the end. However, what made this novel so intense and unforgettable for me was seeing Kate's introduction to the police force, and seeing how Maggie and Kate dealt with being such an extreme and unwanted minority. Having given up on the prestigious, white-collar career that has been expected of me since I began school, I recently joined a large, metropolitan fire department--one where only four percent of us are women. So, while reading this book I alternated between disbelief and recognition. I was relieved that I didn't have to go through what Kate faced, but so much of it felt so familiar that I knew Slaughter had gotten it right.

On the one hand, things are so much better now. My department's administration is more autonomous and doesn't want to get sued. Even men who would act horribly if given the leeway are afraid of getting in trouble, so most of the overt actions that Kate faced are less likely to happen today. Yet the attitude [of some] is remarkably unchanged. Kate discovers that there are no women motorcycle cops. And there aren't women detectives. It's not even an option. The highest on the food chain a woman can go is to become a PC (Plain Clothes) and work undercover as a hooker. In my department, the restrictions aren't as severe or as official, but it's not an accident that most of the women on the department are shunted to the outskirts of the city where it's less busy--especially when a chief of the downtown district openly tries to keep women out. And it wasn't an accident when one of the guys put his hand on my ass after a call while I was on probation. I found myself reading Cop Town partly for job advice. I was afraid that Kate would decide it wasn't worth it, and it would make me question whether I thought it was worth it.

So, this felt like a personal book and it impacted me much more because of it. However, I would still recommend reading it, not so much for the mystery, but for the characters of Maggie and Kate.

"I'm terrific," Kate quipped, because this job had turned her into an animal who couldn't show weakness." (149)

"He gently cradled his hand under her elbow as he helped her behind the nurses' station. Kate felt a swell of emotion. After half a day on the job, she had forgotten what it felt like for a man to treat her like a woman." (141)

"I will never understand humanity the way you will if you continue to work this job." (271)

"The job was soul-killing and humiliating and terrifying but on some strange level, it was challenging, and most surprising of all, fun." (272)

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