"If it doesn't begin, 'A shot rang out'," Kingsley Amis once declared, "I don't want to read it." Had Amis been patient with Karin Slaughter's big — and timely — thriller "Pieces of Her," he would have been well rewarded. The novel's first line lacks gunfire, but whizzing bullets — hailstorms of them — are just over the narrative horizon.
The first five gunshots ring out in a mall restaurant in suburban Savannah, Ga., where a deranged young man murders his girlfriend and her mother. Laura Oliver, a speech therapist, and her 31-year-old daughter, Andy, are enjoying a chatty lunch nearby. Andy has always thought of her divorced mother as a smart but conventional woman who "always knew where all the tops were to her Tupperware." But suddenly Laura is out of her chair, dispatching the maniac with a couple of deft moves that leave him on the floor, spouting blood from a fatal neck wound. An astonished Andy wonders, where did that come from? Does she really know her mother at all? As it happens, hardly.
Thanks to a cellphone that has captured the drama, Laura's face is soon all over CNN. Certain people from her secret past recognize her, and soon Laura is attacked in her home, and Andy is on the run, although she has no idea from whom or what. She knows only that her mother has provided her with access to an Alabama storage unit whose mysterious contents should guarantee Andy's safety.
A quest begins for security, yes, but mainly for answers as to who Laura Oliver really is, and, more important, who she once was.
It is not giving too much away — we learn this fairly early in the book — to report that 30 years earlier Laura Oliver, formerly concert pianist prodigy Jane Queller, was a member of a Weather Underground-like anarchist group called the Army of the Changing World. Abused by her tycoon father, young Jane was susceptible to the charms of the group's charismatic leader, Nick Harp.
Jane stuck with this violent group even though she could not stand its other main female member, who liked to make pronouncements such as, "The concept of right and wrong are patriarchal constructs to control the populace." One of the acts for which Laura can never quite repent is her involvement in the murder of a corrupt American health care mogul at a conference in Oslo.
In a recent interview, Slaughter said that in her novels "character has to matter as much as plot." She demonstrates this in "Pieces of Her." Her portrayals of Laura and Andy are as dense and complicated as the story line.
Andy is an especially winning creation, a decent-hearted but insecure young woman who works as a 911 police dispatcher. Getting wrapped up in her mother's dangerous world finally gives Andy a chance to prove herself as a confident and self-possessed grown-up. Watching Andy grow — and worrying about her survival — is one of the most gratifying aspects of the novel.
Slaughter has also talked about how "good crime fiction holds a mirror up to society and tells readers what's going on in the world." This notion is as old as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Slaughter is one of its most accomplished current practitioners. The plot of "Pieces of Her," which involves fraud and deceit in the nursing home and group home industries, rings all too true.
Although the novel lacks some of the twists and surprises that Slaughter's readers have come to expect and at times feels repetitious and padded, the characters keep you involved all the way, as does the vivid writing.
In the opening scene, the unhappy Andy has skin that is "the pallor of hot dog water." Is that Chandler-esque enough? And later, when she is on the run, Andy stays in a cheap motel where "the soap was the size of a pebble and smelled like the last vestiges of a dying bouquet of flowers." In the same dump, "the bedspread smelled as if a bear had slept on it."
Then, of course, there are all those gunshots. Slaughter has sometimes been criticized, including by me, for excessive blood and gore. In this novel the bloody mayhem just feels, unfortunately, like a slice of contemporary American life.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.