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Slaughter focusses her attention on three policewomen from very different backgrounds. Maggie Lawson followed her family's tradition by signing on to the force, but that tradition, while it embraced bullying and brutality, was less accepting of female cops. Like all the other women on the force, Maggie has to endure daily sexual harassment that never even bothers to try to present itself as just good fun. She, like all the other women, is groped, goosed, and pinched each time she tries to get to her locker. Nor can she expect support at home. Her mother, who simply doesn't like her, evidently simply because she is a girl, moans and blames and prays that she will quit the force. Her brother, a veteran cop, hits her; her other policeman brother Jimmy largely ignores her. Both her domestic life and her life on the job appear so irremediably unpleasant that the reader is left to wonder why she doesn't quit and go somewhere else.
The new recruit whom Maggie is tasked with mentoring (if that's the word) is also a bit of a puzzle. Kate Murphy grew up in privileged circumstances in an upperclass district of Atlanta. She is a widow, her husband having died in Vietnam. She has tried a couple of jobs but found them unsatisfying. Attracted by a recruitment ad, she joins the police. When her family wonders why, she mumbles something about wanting to give back, to make a contribution to social improvement. Whether the brutal, thuggish, Atlanta police force is the most appropriate venue remains to be seen.
If Kate is under any illusions about her place in her new career, the uniform she's been issued and is required to wear makes it abundantly clear that she is out of place. Everything is several sizes too large. The uniform hat slips down over her eyes and her shoes threaten to slip off her feet. The message is evident: she (and all the other women) are too small to fill the shoes of a real policeman. But Kate is out of place for other reasons as well. Her class, which she tries to hide by pretending to be the daughter of a gardener at the house where she grew up, is one. But what would mark her as a hopeless outsider even more than her social background is something that she keeps carefully hidden. Despite her blonde hair and her last name (her husband's), Kate is Jewish, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. What this might mean in Atlanta then is evoked by the memory of what became of Leo Frank, dead at the hands of a lynch mob, whose memory was kept alive in the religion classes Kate attended as a child.
The third woman is Gail Patterson who, at forty-two, represents the "older" generation of women on the force. She's officially a plainclothes officer, but the clothes she wears on the job are far from plain as she is required to work the streets as part of the new John task force, which, "as far as anyone could tell, was a moneymaking scheme that kept rich white bankers out of jail." She is as tough as old boots, and she has to be.
Meanwhile, the "real"police are apparently being targeted by a serial killer, the Shooter. One of the victims is Jimmy's partner and Jimmy barely survives the attack himself. But there is something troubling about his account of the incident that worries his sister Maggie, enough to make her pursue more of the truth. What she uncovers will devastate the entire Lawson clan.
COP TOWN is carefully plotted and vividly written and Slaughter has clearly done her homework in order to portray what Atlanta was like in her own early childhood. She is unsparing in her representation of a culture clinging to past privilege and quick to turn to brutal violence to maintain a way of life that the social changes of the 60s and early 70s are eroding away at its base. Perhaps a bit too unsparing, however, as the reader cannot help wondering what keeps Kate and Maggie on the job that provides them with so much grief and so little satisfaction. We know less about Gail and presume that she has no other choice.
All this said, the book is far from a sociological account of life in Atlanta forty years ago. In addition to its strong female leading characters, it involves a tension-filled plot, a genuine mystery, and considerable amounts of brutality and gore. It even includes a stalker with eyes on Kate and a bit of love-interest. I myself felt that perhaps there was a bit too much going on at times, but I have to admit there was never a dull moment.
The Civil Rights Act of 1965 did prepare a groundwork for a movement toward greater fairness in a society that had for too long excluded large sections of its own population. But ten years after its passage, the unreconstructed police of COP TOWN stubbornly resist change and there are hints here that some of those who were formerly excluded are becoming comfortable with the old ways, so long as they can swing a baton themselves. On the other hand, there are also hints that some change is in offing, change arising from the sense of solidarity among the women themselves. COP TOWN is a standalone, but there is a suggestion of a sequel at the very end. If it does appear, I will be very interested to see where Slaughter takes it.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2014
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