On a late afternoon in sleepy Conyers, Georgia, an older couple, heading home on a back road few people even know exists, hit what they think is a deer. Instead, they discover a woman whose wounds aren’t the result of the crash alone, but something far worse. Within 24 hours, the hole in the ground where the woman was held captive and tortured will be discovered by a GBI agent who accompanies her nearly lifeless body to Grady Hospital. There, a new emergency room doctor does everything possible to keep her alive.
Sara Linton, meet Will Trent.
Fans of Atlanta writer Karin Slaughter’s blood-soaked thrillers will immediately recognize the two main characters from her previous books, though this is the first time they’ve jumped their series’ boundaries. The dyslexic, functionally illiterate Will, who starred in Triptych and Fractured, is the GBI agent in charge of the case, which the local police have already mishandled. Sara, from Slaughter’s best-selling six-book “Grant County” series, is still trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her husband, Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver, was killed in front of her three years ago (in Beyond Reach). A former coroner, Sara is by profession a pediatrician and has moved from Grant County to Atlanta. Sara and Will join forces—she in an attempt to save the victim’s life, he to investigate what looks like a serial killer with a taste for successful, bitchy, single women whose friends and family aren’t likely to miss them too much.
Other familiar faces in Undone (Delacorte Press, $26, 436 pp) include Will’s partner Faith Mitchell—once his sworn enemy, now his most loyal supporter—his sexy girlfriend, Angie Polaski, now his wife, and Will’s boss, Amanda Wagner.
Building on the characters’ evolving relationships and shared histories, Slaughter creates a story every bit as addictive as an HBO series (we can only hope!). In fact, the best part of any good thriller these days—think Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch—is its good guys, their dark sides often far more compelling than the blatantly evil killers they hunt. The dyslexic, the dysfunctional, the damaged, the disillusioned—by skillfully linking her deeply flawed characters to what they do and why they do it, Slaughter creates a fascinating portrait of the people who are driven to track serial killers. It’s not just because it’s their job, but because for them, it’s personal.
Will’s squalid childhood, marked by abuse and abandonment, lines him up squarely with issues of torture and neglect—he still feels the blows and burns. Sara, who has spent the past few years almost comatose with grief, is at the victim’s side mostly in an attempt to return to the living herself. Faith, newly diagnosed with diabetes and pregnant, has a special insight into the lives and survival mechanisms of the victims—two of whom have small children.
Though it’s gruesome enough to satisfy hard-core fans, “Undone” is not as heavy on the graphic violence as some of Slaughter’s earlier books. With the most nightmarish scenario delivered early on, she never zeroes in on her killer or shows him at work; his torture chamber and victims tell the story, while he remains faceless. He has no criminal record, leaves no fingerprints and abducts women who are strangers to him. In fact, the identity of the torturer recalls philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous comment about Nazi Adolf Eichmann when she said evil wears the mask of banality: Undone’s killer is so ordinary as to be undetectable.
To track him down, the team must establish his connection to the victims—to uncover “something he’s doing that makes women trust him, lets him get close enough to snatch them without anyone seeing.” It’s a heart-pounding race to the finish that reveals as much about the hunters as the hunted. In the process, don’t be too surprised if you end up less concerned with the identity of the serial killer than you are with what’s going to happen to Sara, Will and Faith. Not to worry—Slaughter is already working on the next installment.