At one time the Carrolls, living near Atlanta, were a happy family. The dad, Sam, was a veterinarian; the mom, Helen, was a librarian; and the three pretty blonde daughters - Julia, Lydia, and Claire - were in school. Then, when she was nineteen years old, Julia vanished and the family was torn apart.
The local sheriff and his officers investigated but thought that Julia was a rebellious teen who took off on her own and would come back on her own. But she never did. Julia's father Sam continued to relentlessly pursue the case, haunting the police station and searching for his daughter until he was driven to suicide. Julia's mom Helen, needing to get on with life, divorced Sam and remarried - but she kept Julia's room intact for remembrance.
Julia's sisters, Lydia and Claire, matured in this broken household - where they suffered greatly from Julia's disappearance. Lydia became a drug addict who lied, stole, and became estranged from her family. Later on, Lydia had a daughter and developed a relationship with her neighbor Rick, which provided her some peace.
Meanwhile, Claire went to college where she met wealthy Paul Scott, a budding architect. They eventually married and lived in luxury, with a huge home, pricey clothes, club memberships, and expensive cars.
As the story opens Claire Scott - now in her late thirties - has just been released from house arrest after violently assaulting a tennis partner. The Scotts celebrate Julia's freedom by dining at a classy eatery. When the couple leaves the restaurant, however, a mugger attacks them, robs them, roughs them up, and stabs Paul to death.
A day or so later Paul’s business partner, Adam, asks Claire to send him files from Paul’s home computer for a business presentation. While looking for the files Claire comes across a cache of shocking snuff pornography, and assumes her husband was a fan. That would be bad enough, but the truth turns out to be even worse.
Almost immediately Claire’s troubles escalate when - following a foiled burglary at her home - a number of cops show up, ranging from the local sheriff to an FBI agent from the Georgia office. Claire is understandably puzzled by this over-reaction to an attempted theft, but is eventually told that Paul embezzled money from his firm.
When Claire starts to question what was going on with Paul she learns about a snuff pornography conspiracy and calls on her estranged sister Lydia to help her investigate. A lot happens afterwards, and there are some surprising twists.
The book is very graphic in it’s description of violence to women, which I found hard to read. My main criticism of the book, though, hinges on unrealistic behavior by some of the characters.
In real life a woman like Julia – who has experience with lawyers and is rich – would probably call a high-powered attorney or the Washington office of the FBI when she senses big trouble. Instead Julia calls her older sister, and together they embark on a dangerous investigation. This is necessary for the book's plot but it doesn’t ring true. I also thought the seemingly omniscient perp – who knew everything that was going on everywhere - was not credible.
A number of ancillary characters add interest to the story, including the local cops who seem indifferent and incompetent; a creepy Georgia-based FBI agent; Paul's partner Adam, who had an affair with Claire; Lydia's boyfriend Rick, who seems like a nice guy; dad Sam Carroll - whose letters to his missing daughter are interspersed throughout the book; mom Helen Carroll, who's willing to help in a pinch; and others.
Karin Slaughter's books tend to be violent and disturbing and this one is at the top of the heap in that regard. Still this is a well-written, compelling thriller that I’d recommend to mystery lovers who have a strong stomach.