What Scares Thriller Writer Karin Slaughter?

Karin Slaughter i i

hide captionKarin Slaughter is the author of nine novels, including Undone, Fractured, Beyond Reach and A Faint Cold Fear. She lives in Atlanta, Ga., where she set her thriller Triptych.

Alison Rosa
Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter is the author of nine novels, including Undone, Fractured, Beyond Reach and A Faint Cold Fear. She lives in Atlanta, Ga., where she set her thriller Triptych.

Alison Rosa

In our series Thrilled to Death, suspense writers talk with us about their work, and then recommend the books they love.

Karin Slaughter is a master of the thriller genre; her latest book, Broken, is full of twists and turns and technical details. It revolves around two women: A police detective with a story to hide, and a medical examiner who finds herself drawn into a murder investigation in the town she used to call home.

In the latest installment of our Thrilled to Death series, Slaughter joins NPR's Michele Norris to talk about Broken, and the books and authors that influenced her along the way. You can hear their conversation by clicking the "Listen" link at the top of the page. Below, read Slaughter's recommendation of Denise Mina's Garnethill.

Garnethill
Garnethill
By Denise Mina
Paperback, 432 pages
Back Bay Book
List price: $13.99

Read An Excerpt

More In The 'Thrilled To Death' Series

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Thriller Recommendation: 'Garnethill' By Denise Mina

By Karin Slaughter

The most enduring stories in literature generally have some kind of crime at their center, whether it's the bloody butchery of Hamlet, the lecherous misanthropes of Dickens or the lone gunman from The Great Gatsby. We would not have the courtroom drama of To Kill a Mockingbird without Mayella Ewell's accusation of rape. We would not have The Lovely Bones if little Susie hadn't been targeted by a pedophile. We would not have Water for Elephants without the brutal death of a sadistic wife-beater. Even Gone With the Wind had a shocking, cold-blooded murder.

In all of these works, violence, or the threat of violence, doesn't just propel the plot; it creates tension, it tests character and, most importantly, it brings conflict that has to be resolved. Pushing the boundaries of polite society does not just fall under the purview of crime fiction authors. Good writers know that crime is an entre into telling a greater story about character. Good crime writing holds up a mirror to the readers and reflects in a darker light the world in which they live.

There isn't a better crime writer today than Denise Mina. Her first novel, Garnethill, began a trilogy of books featuring Maureen O'Donnell, a psychiatric patient and incest survivor. As with many victims of sexual abuse, Maureen has turned her anger inward. At every point in her life, she's chosen the worst path, whether it's becoming sexually involved with the psychiatrist who is supposed to be helping her or self-medicating with alcohol. That she wakes up after a blackout to find her lover violently murdered is just the beginning of the grueling emotional journey she embarks on to find her sanity.

Maureen's volatility is the hallmark of not just a good crime novel, but a good crime novel written by a woman. There is nothing precious about this damaged character. You want to root for her, but you also want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to snap out of it. The fact that our anti-heroine isn't perfect, that she believably crosses lines that many of us wouldn't think of approaching, opens up a startling dichotomy: everything Maureen has survived has made her want to die. This is a woman's life that you don't often find talked about in contemporary fiction; an awakening where Edna finally remembers how to swim. A battered woman, an abused and self-abusing woman, who doesn't have to die in order for her struggle to have meaning.

In many ways, Mina's writing reminds me of Kathryn Harrison's earlier work — the childhood exploitations of Thicker Than Water combined with the willful self-destruction of Exposure. Both women write about characters who live in the extremes. Both writers know that the only way to push the boundaries of the craft is to push the boundaries of crime. No matter the genre, this is the legacy to which all good writers should aspire. Violence well-told is a fulcrum for prying the scab off of the human condition.

Thrilled to Death is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with help from Gabe O'Conner, Chelsea Jones and Miriam Krule.

Excerpt: 'Granethill'

Garnethill
Garnethill
By Denise Mina
Paperback, 432 pages
Back Bay Book
List price: $13.99

Maureen dried her eyes impatiently, lit a cigarette, walked over to the bedroom window, and threw open the heavy red curtains. Her flat was at the top of Garnethill, the highest hill in Glasgow, and the craggy North Side lay before her, polka-dotted with cloud shadows. In the street below, art students were winding their way up to their morning classes.

When she first met Douglas she knew that this would be a big one. His voice was soft and when he spoke her name she felt that God was calling or something. She fell in love despite Elsbeth, despite his lies, despite her friends' disapproval. She remembered a time when she would watch him sleep, his eyes fluttering behind the lids, and she found the sight so beautiful that it winded her. But on Monday night she woke up and looked at him and knew it was over. Eight long months of emotional turmoil had passed as suddenly as a fart.

At work she told Liz.

"Oh, I know, I know," said Liz, back-combing her blond hair with her fingers. "Before I met Garry I used to go dancing . . ."

Liz was crap to talk to. It didn't matter what the subject was, she always brought it back round to her and Garry. Garry was a sex god, everyone fancied him, said Liz, she had been lucky to get him. Maureen was sure that Garry was the source of this information. He came by the ticket booth sometimes, hanging in the window, flirting at Maureen when Liz wasn't looking.

Liz began a rambling story about liking Garry and then not liking him and then liking him again. Two sentences into it Maureen realized she had heard the story before. Her head began to ache. "Liz," she said, "would you do me a favor and get the phones today? He's supposed to phone and I don't want to talk to him."

"Sure," said Liz. "No bother."

At half-ten Liz opened her eyes wide. "Sorry," she said theatrically into the phone, "she's not here. No, she won't be in then either. Try tomorrow." She hung up abruptly and looked at Maureen. "Pips went."

"Pips? Was he calling from a phone box?"

"Aye."

Maureen looked at her watch. "That's strange," she said. "He should be at work."

Half an hour later Liz answered the phone again. "No," she said flatly, "I told you she's not in. Try tomorrow." She put the phone down. "Well," she said, clearly impressed, "he's eager."

"Was he calling from a phone box again?"

"Sounded like it. I could hear people talking in the background like before."

The ticket booth was at the front of the Apollo Theatre, set into a triangular dip in the neoclassical facade so that customers didn't have to stand in the rain while they bought their tickets. It was a dull gray day outside the window, the first bitter day of autumn, coming just as warm afternoons had begun to feel like a birthright. The cold wind brushed under the window, eddying in the change tray. The second post brought a letter stamped with an Edinburgh postmark and addressed to Maureen. She folded it in half and slipped it into her pocket, pulled the blind down at her window and told Liz she was going to the loo.

Douglas said he was living with Elsbeth but Maureen felt sure they were married: twelve years together seemed like a lifetime and he lied about everything else. Three months ago the elections for the European Parliament had been held and Douglas's mother was returned for a second term as the MEP for Strathclyde. All the local newspapers carried variations of the same carefully staged photo opportunity. Carol Brady was standing on the forecourt of a big Glasgow hotel, smiling and holding a bunch of roses. Douglas was standing in the background next to the provost, his arm slung casually around a pretty blond woman's waist. The caption named her as Elsbeth Brady, his wife.

Maureen had written to the General Register in Edinburgh, sending a postal order and Douglas's details, asking for a fifteen-year search on the public marriage register. She remembered caring desperately when she sent the letter three months ago but now the response had arrived it was just a curiosity.

The outer door was jammed open by Audrey's mop bucket. One of the cubicle doors was shut and a thin string of smoke rose from behind the door. Maureen tiptoed over the freshly mopped floor, locked the cubicle door and sat on the edge of the toilet, ripping the fold open with her finger.

The marriage certificate said that he had been married in 1987 to Elsbeth Mary McGregor. Maureen felt a burst of lethargy like an acid rush in her stomach.

"Hello?" called Audrey from the other cubicle, speaking in the strangled accent she reserved for addressing the management.

"It's all right," said Maureen. "It's only me. Smoke on."

When she got back to the office Liz was excited. "He phoned again," she said, looking at Maureen as if this were great news. "I said you weren't in today and he shouldn't phone back. He must be mad for you."

Maureen couldn't be arsed responding. "I really don't think so," she said, and slipped his marriage certificate into her handbag.

Excerpted from Granethill by Denise Mina. Copyright 1998 by Denise Mina. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown and Company.

Books Featured In This Story

Broken
Broken

by Karin Slaughter

Hardcover, 402 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Broken
  • Karin Slaughter
Garnethill
Garnethill

A Novel

by Denise Mina

Paperback, 402 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Garnethill
  • A Novel
  • Denise Mina

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