The day before Mother’s Day, I walked into a used book store and told the guy behind the counter that I wanted a “brutal, graphic thriller-mystery.” I had decided to study a few contemporary novels in the field that I was writing, to see if I could pick up any tricks. The fellow thought for a moment, then said he had some books that fit that description perfectly, and pulled out two by Karin Slaughter, Triptych and Fractured. He began to tell me about her style, and his enthusiasm was obvious. He said that he had not read them in order, and he regretted it when he finally read Triptych. He went on and on about how Slaughter had built the suspense so skillfully, and pulled the rug right out from under him at times.
I was so excited.
At this point, I must note (with shame) that I have not read very many new books over the past few years. I had gotten out of the habit of reading. If it were not for writing, I might never have gotten back into it. If one wants to be a writer, one must read voraciously. I had almost forgotten when it feels like to get wrapped-up in a novel.
As I read part I of Triptych, I got so caught up in the characters and plot that I had an undeniable, visceral, physical reaction. My heart was pounding, my muscles were tight – it was almost as if I had had too much caffeine and got the jitters (I love that feeling!). And, yes, at the very end of part I, she completely pulls the rug out from under you, and you’re left with WTF? I WANT MORE! She had crafted the characters very well, and I felt sincere sympathy for the flawed main character of part I, to the point where I did something I had never done as a reader – I skipped part II (which follows a different character) to get to part III and back to this character.
And then I felt like Karin Slaughter cheated me.
Before I explain my offense, let me say: I enjoyed reading the book, despite the objections below. I think Slaughter is an incredible wordsmith, and I am going to have to re-write my novel now, because she modeled so well how to illustrate a scene and characters. The concept of the novel was excellent, and the crimes themselves were unique and attention-grabbing.
Part III does not focus on the main character of part I directly, but two characters near him. It was immediate in the first chapter of part III that I felt a dissonance, a discrepancy, between the MC that was illustrated in part I and the man they were describing in part III. It was suddenly as if I had been dropped into a different novel with the same conflict and same character names, but one of the characters was a foil of himself.
Let me try to be a bit more precise:
Part I is third-person omniscient, focused entirely on one character. Although we don’t get too much internal dialogue, the narrator still describes what is going on in his head, the emotions he experiences, and his reactions to events. The character was thoroughly set-up and skillfully written; He was complex and flawed, with obvious motivations – for the most part. Slaughter also sprinkles in hints and foreshadowing, showing us that there is a completely different side of this character, but I was sure we were going to discover the hows and whys, and we will reach a satisfying resolution.
But as I read part III, it felt as if Slaughter had decided in writing part II that she suddenly, inexplicably hated this character, and was going to twist him into something else. (She also went from omniscient focused on one character to focusing on three, which I could understand if one of the characters had been the MC of part I.) It was as if she started the novel not knowing where it was going to end, and when she decided, she did not go back to part I and revise to make it consistent (which would mean completely re-writing part I), beyond – possibly – smattering in these little clues. (The clues in part I did not feel inconsistent, though. I read these, and thought, Oh, oh! I see what you did there!)
I went back to part II to see if there was anything vital there that may explain the discrepancy, but there wasn’t. However, if I had read straight through, I would have seen the inconsistency earlier. Perhaps I would not have felt so angry about it.
So, as a reader and a writer, I felt personally cheated. I wanted to read about this flawed, but sympathetic, character that she had built in part I, and see that character through to the inevitably fatal resolution. But that wasn’t the book I finished, and I am never going to be able to read that book. I’m tempted to write Slaughter, explain my anger (in much more objective terms than I use here), and demand an explanation – which I think I know what it will be (see below the Spoiler line).
As a writer I felt cheated because I don’t see how an agent, editor, and publisher could let something like this slip by them. I would have sent it back with a note that said, Rewrite part I or rewrite part III, because this is not the same person. And I understand that she is a well-established, best-selling author, and that my offense is partnered with envy, but it still feels sloppy, and I cannot help but think, As an author, I could not do that. If a character is horrible, make him so from the beginning. Know what you are going to do with them, and then do it, even if the other characters don’t see it, or haven’t picked up on it.
I loved Slaughter’s writing – the words themselves – and I really want to go on to read Fractured, but I’m also reluctant to do so. I don’t want to feel that kind of rage and bitterness toward an author again (and I did, as petty as it sounds, feel angry and bitter for several days afterward). I’ve read books I’ve hated outright (Last of the Mohicans, Elective Affinities), but I’ve never felt so cheated by a book before. I’m worried that reading the second book would be like getting back together with an unfaithful lover. But there it is, sitting in the back seat of my car, just in case.
***WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS***
The man we met in part III is not a man who would wonder what went wrong with his marriage, or get upset that they had to spend their Christmas savings, or regret that his son is too damaged to love a woman. He wouldn’t call himself a piece of shit for having an affair. The character at the end is too narcissistic for that. However, that is how the character was built in part I. That is the character that I wanted to follow through to the end, even though I knew that it would – it had to – end tragically for him.
I can understand that, as a writer, you don’t want to make certain characters sympathetic. You don’t want to make a rapist or child molester a sympathetic character that people feel sincerely sorry for, even if it is about other aspects of their lives, and they don’t know that the character is a rapist/child molester. It’s possible that Slaughter realized that she didn’t want to do this, even though she already had, so she hardened the character into something repulsive… but she didn’t go back and revisit what she had already written; She just gave us a new character with the same name and life circumstances.
If this is the reason, it sucks. It just sucks. Because writers are supposed to go out on a limb and take risks, they are supposed to make readers feel uncomfortable about reality. The truth is, you don’t know that person you like or respect is a rapist/child molester/murderer until they are caught, and then you feel all sorts of uncomfortable, distressing – even traumatic – emotions (I speak from personal experience).