Cop Town by Karin Slaughter is a standalone novel about Atlanta in 1974, a city in turmoil, and a pair of female cops confronting a serial killer targeting police, as well as the deep divisions in their own force (available June 24, 2014).
I was born in January, 1974 in the deep South—eleven months before the opening of Karin Slaughter’s latest Atlanta-set thriller, Cop Town, begins. So, for me, the story of a rookie Atlanta cop, Kate Murphy, and her partner, Maggie Lawson, is as much a glimpse into the world of my birth as it is a gripping read.
As she did in her 2012 novel, Criminal, which also explored the early '70s Atlanta police force, in Cop Town, Slaughter uses her prose to reveal what it meant to be a woman in what had previously been an all male, all white profession. Through the eyes of Kate—a Vietnam War widow who is not what she at first seems—and Maggie—the sister and niece of other Atlanta cops—Slaughter demonstrates that despite their inclusion in the APD, they have a long way to go before they are treated as equals.
Maggie Lawson’s day begins with her Uncle Terry, an Atlanta PD detective, bringing the news that her brother Jimmy’s partner, Don Wesley, is the latest victim of the Atlanta Shooter, an unknown assailant who’s been shooting pairs of Atlanta patrolmen execution-style. Fortunately for Jimmy, this time only one of the partners has been shot. Which presents a puzzle for his sister Maggie:
“The four other cops, were their tires slashed, too?”
She tried to get the sequence straight in her head. “Someone called in a burglary, then slashed their tires, then shot Don and didn’t touch Jimmy?”
Terry shook his head, not looking up from the paper. “Leave it to the detectives, sweetheart.”
“But—” Maggie couldn’t let it go. “The Shooter’s changing his M.O.” She had to add, “Or it’s not the Shooter. It’s somebody trying to copy the Shooter.”
Terry shook his head again, but this time it was more like a warning.
“But Jimmy wasn’t shot. He was standing right beside Don, or near him at least.” That was the big difference. In the previous cases, both men were forced to their knees and executed, one right after the other. She asked, “Did Jimmy pull his gun?”
“Jesus Christ!” Terry banged his fist on the table. “Will you shut the hell up so I can read the paper?”
“Terry?” Delia called from the kitchen. “The drain’s clogged again, do you think you can—”
“In a minute.” He kept his gaze on Maggie. “I wanna know what tough girl here is thinking. You got it figured out, Columbo? You see something guys who’ve been on the job since you were a tickle in your daddy’s ball sac missed?”
Terry’s lack of respect for Maggie’s opinions as a cop in her own right is a foreshadowing of what the APD as a whole seems to think of women on the job. Across town, rookie Kate Murphy begins her day in uniform pants that are ridiculously too long, shoes that are too large, and a hat that swallows her small head. All despite her having given accurate measurements to the department previously: The guys in the supply room gave the women uniforms that were too large, while the black men got uniforms that were obscenely small.
But it’s the other women on the force who give Kate her real initiation. Having walked the gauntlet through the male-filled squad room, where it seems like every man there has copped a feel, Kate makes the mistake of opening the door to the women’s locker room too wide—and it's festooned with a crude drawing of a penis—earning her a chastising from the other women.
If you couldn’t make it in the women’s locker room, you couldn’t make it out on the street. At least the jabs you got in here were only verbal. In her first month, Maggie had been spat on more times than she could count and punched in the face by the wife of the man she was arresting for domestic battery.
[Wanda] kept staring at the woman [Kate Murphy], obviously checking all the boxes that listed why she hated her. Tall, with strawberry blonde hair and a model-perfect face. Big blue eues. High cheekbones. Even without lipstick, her lips were cherry red. She had a couple years on them all, but there was something fresher, younger, more feminine about her.
Wanda asked, ”You here to meet guys? ‘Cause I can tell you right now, ain’t none of ‘em worth knowing….You wouldn’t be the first gal to call it quits before roll call.”
“I’m not quitting.” The blonde seemed to be speaking more to herself. “I’m not here to meet men. I’m here to do a job. And I’m not quitting.”
Wanda grunted. “We’ll see about that, Hoity-Toity.”
“I’m not—” Kate shifted, nearly losing her balance. Her shoes were too big. Her pants were coming unpinned. She was swallowed in sea of navy-blue wool. Still, she said, “I need this job.”
Maggie studied the girl. She was obviously scared, and there was no denying the desperation in her voice, but she deserved some credit for not backing down. Especially since Wanda was in her cop stance, which even Maggie found intimidating.
Wanda seemed to notice this too. She moderated her tone, but only slightly. “Don’t wear the dress socks they gave you. Franklin Simon has wool ones, two for a dollar, that’ll keep your feet in your shoes. Find a stapler for your pants. Those pins ain’t gonna hold, especially if you have to chase somebody, and believe me, you’re gonna have to chase somebody, or fight somebody off, and with that figure, it’ll probably be one of those monkeys on the other side of the door.”
And just like that, Kate is welcomed into the sisterhood. Or, if not welcomed, then at least accepted.
Over the course of the novel, both she and Maggie will endure far worse indignities than those they suffer in the first section of the story, but they’ll also come into their own, proving that just because they’re females doesn’t mean they can’t be good cops. And it’s with a sense of her newfound power that Maggie tells one of her white, male superior officers:
“Atlanta’s still a cop town…You’re just not the cop who’s running it anymore….I think the whole world is gonna change. For me. For Kate. For the blacks. For the browns, yellows, greens. For you. Especially for you.”
For me, Cop Town isn’t only a page-turning mystery, it’s also a glimpse into what the world must have been like for Southern women with ambitions outside of the home in the year I was born. It’s also an exercise in frustration as I reflect on the fact that for lots of women—those in the military, for instance, or those in search of legal birth control—we haven’t come all that far, baby.
Let’s hope by the time I’m eighty, we aren’t still fighting the same old battles.
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Manda Collins has been reading mysteries since her first Nancy Drew at the age of six. An academic librarian by day, by night, she writes historical romance blended with mystery. Her sixth novel, Why Lords Lose Their Hearts, will be release in July, 2014. To learn more, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter @MandaCollins.