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Three The Hard Way

Karin Slaughter
Delacorte Press, 2006
Rating: 4.1

Posted: September 18, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There’s a certain subset of crime fiction distinguished by the pain its main characters carry around like a badge of honor. This is one reason why so much crime fiction so rarely gets its due -- the archetype of the private dick with the bottle in his desk drawer resounds so strongly in the zeitgeist that readers automatically, even subconsciously, assume that any story with a protagonist who’s even slightly mopey will prove a fertile bed of other clichés, as well.

By that logic, Karin Slaughter’s standalone thriller Triptych should be a clinical textbook of such tropes. Each of her main characters appears irreparably damaged. There’s Atlanta homicide detective Michael Ormewood, who’s got that old standby -- a marriage that’s coming apart -- and a mentally ill child thrown in for good measure. (Oh, yeah, he’s dallying with his next door neighbor, too.) There’s John Shelley, recently paroled after serving 20 years for a brutal murder he didn’t commit, a mere starter kit of a man conditioned to expect nothing from life. And throw in Will Trent, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who has to work three times as hard as anyone else to hide his dyslexia -- to say nothing of the physical scars that serve as a reminder of the abusive childhood he shared with Atlanta vice cop Angie Polaski, a walking collection of self-destructive impulses.

Luckily, Slaughter doesn’t just slap together a cast of miserable wretches out of some vague notion left over from film noir that inner pain by itself equals character development. This is one messed up group of people, to be sure, but all of their problems and neuroses are critical to the story she has to tell. Slaughter, who established herself as a first-tier crime author with her series of novels set in fictional Grant County, Ga., has taken to heart that mantra that drives the best mystery/thrillers: “Nothing is as it seems.” Thus, it wouldn’t be sporting to reveal too much of the plot, for fear of spoiling the series of surprise sucker-punches she so artfully unveils. But suffice it to say that the case links the three men (hence the title) -- and Angie too -- in unexpected and engrossing ways.

Slaughter’s skillful thriller plotting -- the way she withholds critical character information until just the right moment, forcing the reader to completely rethink everything they’ve already learned -- makes Triptych a compelling and enjoyable read. But it’s the expert ease with which she illuminates the wounded psyches of her principal players that impresses the most, and resonates days after the last page is turned.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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