I have read my fair share of lukewarm true crime novels that have made their slow journey from the Target book club to the Goodwill donation pool, and I always know what I’m getting into before I sit down. Each book follows a familiar pattern: it is centered around women, written in a strangely informal voice, addresses inner-familial turmoil in some way, whether marital or parental, and can be broadly classified as a Beach Read—a Women’s Read. Quite a few revolve around journalists (most of the writers are ex-reporters, anyway), like “The Widow” by Fiona Barton, which follows a facsimile of Gale Weathers and remains one of the worst books I have ever read, or “The Stranger Inside” by Lisa Unger, which wasn’t half bad.
Karin Slaughter’s “Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes” is another Journalist Book—though, at 80 pages, it’s a fraction of one. It follows a student at the University of Georgia in 1991 who begins investigating a series of disappearances of 28 women for, of all publications, The Red & Black. Though not explicitly detailed in the book, the student goes missing shortly after pitching the story to the editors at the paper, who assert that the disappearance of women is a newsworthy story (and are absolute caricatures themselves).
“Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes” is the prelude to Slaughter’s best-selling novel “Pretty Girls,” which follows the sisters of the student reporter a few decades after her disappearance. It’s not required to begin with the larger novel, however; it’s merely a painful entry point to a book I have no desire to read after working my way through the novella.
My distaste for “Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes” is not the result of Slaughter wedging every Athens cliché into the book—to quote a minor character on page 42, “I hear Michael Stipe is going to be at the Manhattan tonight.” It is not the result of the clear factual errors, either, like the main character stating Hot Corner’s namesake was picked “for unknown reasons,” which Slaughter could have fact-checked by reading an article by the student newspaper she chose to appropriate.
The pain I felt while reading the book developed shortly after I realized the student reporter’s dueling motivations were, one, trying to make sense of a string of disappearances for the newspaper and, two, attempting to lose her virginity. Slaughter presenting each motivation as if there was an equal battle between them came off as silly, crass and unbearably trivial, and created a shallow image for the reporter.
The crude language used by Slaughter to describe the town of Athens through the lens of a teenager only exacerbated my gripe with the book. The student reporter was not a transplant—she was an Athens native. So why did Slaughter choose to have the student refer to a subsection of the city as a “bad side of town, where she would be expected to wait on smelly, crazy homeless people?” If the reader is supposed to empathize with the student’s drive to bring justice to missing women in the area, why was she written in a way that makes a mockery of systemic issues that exist in Athens?
And what about Slaughter’s breakdown of the homeless women she encountered when working: "What passed as a social scene reminded Julia of high school because they created the same roles: the whore, the teacher's pet, the good girl, the bitch, the nerd. Mona was the bitch because she was pretty—she still had all of her teeth, she wore makeup, she didn't look homeless. Delilah was the whore because she was older and more experienced. And also because she really was a whore."
Slaughter certainly didn’t write the book as an ode to Athens, or to celebrate it in any way. Instead, she merely used Athens as a fill-in for any other Southern college town. But what was the point in furthering awful narratives that already exist in the city and creating a character with whom you could not trick yourself into empathizing?