I suggested to my publishers that a good shoutline for my newbook Fallen would be: "Muder! Sex! Chihuahuas!" For some reason, they thought I was joking, though the book has all three in good measure. It starts out with a pretty gripping opening. Special Agent Faith Mitchell is driving home from work. She’s headed to her mother’s house to pick up her four month old daughter. The problem is, she can’t get her mother on the phone. Everyone’s been in this situation where you can’t reach someone and you don’t know whether to panic or laugh at yourself. By the time Faith pulls into her mother’s driveway, she’s closer to the former than the latter. And then she realizes that her infant daughter has been locked in the tool shed. She sees that her mother’s gun safe is empty. Then, she sees a blood trail to the house. Then, she sees a bloody handprint on the door. Being a good cop, Faith calls it in, then grabs her shotgun and heads into the house to try to find her mother. That’s the first twenty or so pages. Hopefully, people will want to keep reading to find out what happens next.
I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Mitchell. That sort of tells you I was born in the south, because these are some of our great Southern authors (and, in this rare instance, I’ll count Texas as the South!) I’ve always been drawn to dark stories. I suppose that’s part of my roots as well. Southerners tend to like murderous and devious folk. We especially like talking about them.
I never miss a book by Denise Mina or Mo Hayder. I love what they’re doing. I read their books and want to write even more because I feel challenged by what they’re doing—the risks they take, the obvious fun they have doing it. That’s the joy of being in crime fiction today. Because of the internet, I can read something Mo wrote and send her a note saying, "OH MY GOD!" and know that she’s taking it as a compliment. I am such huge fans of these people. I love reading almost as much as I love writing.
I think writers should approach it today the same way writers always have: does it work for the story? My feeling is the same as with a sex scene: if you take it out and the story still works, then it doesn’t belong. Flannery O’Connor used violence as a way to talk about the social condition. Patricia Highsmith used violence to show the humanity of her characters. Modern writers such as Barbara Vine, Lee Child and Mark Billingham are doing the same thing. Violence in context says something new about the world. Violence for the sake of violence is a bit dull.
Again, I think writers should write what they’re comfortable with. I’m not one of these writers who say, "You shouldn’t do that." I am, however, a reader who says, "That’s not the kind of book that’s for me." On sex, Mark Billingham said something funny a while back—writing about the bad characters having sex is easy. Writing about good characters having sex feels a bit naughty. I like writing frankly about sexual situations. When I read books by Sarah Waters or any number of authors who talk about sex in an adult way, who use it to show something new or (in the case of Mo Hayder) something disturbing about a character, then I feel like the author has done great service to storytelling. But—sex that reads like a gynecological experiment, or sex that’s extremely violent followed by a quick paragraph about how that’s wrong and we should all really respect women, doesn’t work for me. There has to be a moral compass to the work if you’re going to hold my attention.
I’m very aware about how lucky I am to have success. There are so many writers out there, and so many good books, that it’s really shocking any of us manage to pull away from the herd. That being said, I think readers throughout history have always loved stories about crime. Dickens was full of crime. Crime and Punishment wouldn’t work without crime. The Great Gatsby. Gone With the Wind. Water for Elephants. The Lovely Bones. All of these books have crimes in them.
I’ve been doing a lot of research for the next one, Criminal. Part of it takes place in 1975 in Atlanta, when Will’s boss, Amanda Wagner, first became a cop. Part of the story takes place in present day and of course there’s something from the past that comes back to haunt Amanda—and Will. It’s been a lot of fun writing because I can use phrases like, "foxy mama," and "bad mama jama." I mean—what’s not to love about that?
Karin Slaughter’s latest book Fallen is published by Century in hardback £18.99.