Skin Privilege

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

Skin Privilege

By Karin Slaughter

Century, HK$198

Karin Slaughter grew up in Georgia, in the southern US, in small towns much like those of the fictional Grant County, the location for her best-selling Grant County series.

These days, Slaughter lives in Atlanta, setting for the recently published Triptych, her first stand-alone thriller. But she continues to draw on her small-town upbringing and the problems that beset those towns - the insidious influence of white supremacists and their involvement in the drugs trade, the explosion in the use of methamphetamine - to perpetuate her popular series.

Skin Privilege, the sixth instalment, features paediatrician Sara Linton, who is also the local coroner, and husband, Jeffrey Tolliver, the sheriff. And for series aficionados now saying, 'No, he's not her husband, they divorced because Sara caught him with another woman,' Skin Privilege opens with Sara and Jeffrey having just remarried and applying to adopt a child.

But it also opens with Sara facing a challenge to her commitment to the town and people to whom she has given so much, forgoing lucrative, high-profile offers to set up a practice. She is faced with a malpractice suit brought by a couple unable to accept the reality of their child's death and looking for a scapegoat and a way to pay their medical bills. Other townsfolk, scenting the chance of easy money, are showing a disturbing willingness to join the hunt.

At the end of a draining day of legal depositions, Sara is longing to head home with Jeffrey when he receives the call that sets the scene for Skin Privilege's main storyline: his troublesome woman detective Lena Adams has been arrested in her home town, three hours' drive away. A murder charge is on the cards.

Skin Privilege is as much Lena's story as it is Sara's and while it is easily read as a stand-alone work, for series fans it explains much about the violent and difficult past that has shaped Lena's life and personality, and her attraction to a violent boyfriend, now in jail.

Slaughter's dark stories pull no punches and this is no exception. She writes graphically about violence, in particular violence against women. That was one of the motivations for her writing: to tackle a taboo subject and, by doing so, help to break down that taboo. In fact, Sara herself has been raped and the injuries she suffered are the reason she can't have children.

In going to Lena's aid, Sara and Jeffrey find themselves caught up in the violent and dangerous underbelly of the town of Reece, with Lena on the run, having fled custody. The illegal drugs trade and its bedfellows, power and dirty money, feature prominently, and Slaughter does not flinch from showing what addiction does to a person, nor the stop-at-nothing ethics of those for whom others' addictions are their lifeblood.

Skin Privilege is an unflinching, tense and gripping thriller from a writer who does so much more than simply feed the current fascination with forensics and the blood-and-guts details we would never have seen on screen 20 years ago. She addresses important contemporary issues but at the same time tells the story of flawed but empathetic characters in whom we can see something of ourselves.

It is giving nothing away to say that Skin Privilege ends dramatically, so much so that one wonders whether this is the end of the line. Not so, says Slaughter. There will be another Grant County book, to be called Genesis, next year. Those who read the final chapter of Skin Privilege will be at the head of the queue.