Review: THE EX and DEAD CONNECTION by Alafair Burke

BurkeA-FirstReads-ExDeadConnection

A stand-alone and first in an earlier series

The first novel I read by Alafair Burke, The Ex,  left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. Luckily, my second novel by the author was more engaging. I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of Burke’s backlist.

BurkeA-TheExUSTHE EX (Harper, 2016)

A woman agrees to help an old boyfriend who has been framed for murder — but begins to suspect that she is the one being manipulated.

Twenty years ago she ruined his life. Now she has the chance to save it.

Widower Jack Harris has resisted the dating scene ever since the shooting of his wife Molly by a fifteen-year-old boy three years ago. An early morning run along the Hudson River changes that when he spots a woman in last night’s party dress, barefoot, enjoying a champagne picnic alone, reading his favorite novel. Everything about her reminds him of what he used to have with Molly. Eager to help Jack find love again, his best friend posts a message on a popular website after he mentions the encounter. Days later, that same beautiful stranger responds and invites Jack to meet her in person at the waterfront. That’s when Jack’s world falls apart.

Olivia Randall is one of New York City’s best criminal defense lawyers. When she hears that her former fiancé, Jack Harris, has been arrested for a triple homicide — and that one of the victims was connected to his wife’s murder — there is no doubt in her mind as to his innocence. The only question is who would go to such great lengths to frame him — and why?

For Olivia, representing Jack is a way to make up for past regrets, to absolve herself of guilt from a tragic decision, a secret she has held for twenty years. But as the evidence against him mounts, she is forced to confront her doubts. The man she knew could not have done this. But what if she never really knew him?

I spotted this on Edelweiss, and was in the mood for a legal thriller of some kind. It uses a classic scenario of the genre — the defence lawyer must navigate an aggressive prosecution team, a not wholly-forthcoming defendant, and some personal issues. Burke’s prose is tight, and her characters believable and realistic. There were a number of twists in the final third of the book, only slightly telegraphed before their reveal.

So, an interesting novel. Except, that is, for Olivia, who I never found particularly compelling. She is inconsistent — supposedly, having practiced law for over a decade and almost making partner at a huge firm, she still needed some of the most basic things explained to her (things any viewer of TV legal thrillers would know, even). Then, seemingly at random, she might pull off a magnificent, devious maneuver. She alternates between observant, and a bit dense and naive. The first two thirds of the novel, when we’re getting to know her, dragged. The final third, however, was more tightly written and I felt myself finally sinking into the narrative.

I was puzzled by my reaction to this novel, because so many authors whose work I love wrote so enthusiastically about Burke’s work (which was quoted extensively on The Ex‘s cover and publicity material). For me, The Ex showed hints of the skill that is remarked upon in this plentiful praise, but didn’t fully deliver on that promise. I finished this thinking maybe it was just not the author’s best work, and soon after I dove right into Dead Connection

*

BurkeA-EH1-DeadConnectionUSDEAD CONNECTION (Henry Holt, 2007)

A rookie detective goes undercover on the Internet dating scene to draw out a serial killer targeting single women in Manhattan

When two young women are murdered on the streets of New York, exactly one year apart, Detective Ellie Hatcher is called up for a special assignment on the homicide task force. The killer has left behind a clue connecting the two cases to First Date, a popular online dating service, and Flann McIlroy, an eccentric, publicity-seeking homicide detective, is convinced that only Ellie can help him pursue his terrifying theory: someone is using the lure of the Internet and the promise of love to launch a killing spree against the women of New York City.

To catch the killer, Ellie must enter a high-tech world of stolen identities where no one is who they appear to be. And for her, the investigation quickly becomes personal: she fits the profile of the victims, and she knows firsthand what pursuing a sociopath can do to a cop — back home in Wichita, Kansas, her father lost his life trying to catch a notorious serial murderer.

When the First Date killer begins to mimic the monster who destroyed her father, Ellie knows the game has become personal for him, too. Both hunter and prey, she must find the killer before he claims his next victim—who could very well be her.

Dead Connection is the first novel in Burke’s Ellie Hatcher series (currently at five novels — see below). The story focuses on rookie cop Hatcher and a secondment to work with a strange, brilliant homicide detective. McIlroy — sometimes known (awkwardly) as “McIl-Mulder” — is a gifted, unorthodox detective, known for finding connections nobody else could. He’s also known for rubbing his colleagues the wrong way. Hatcher is something of a cop celebrity, due to a long-running case involving her father’s apparent suicide back in Kansas. All of this took place pre-novel, so we’re given some important information to fill us in and give the characters shape, depth and flavour.

Unlike The Ex, Dead Connection drops us right into the story and never lets up. I much preferred this approach. As with The Ex, this novel plays with some popular genre tropes and conventions — without feeling tired or unoriginal.

The story and case progress well — there are a couple of twists, and some surprises. The detectives are presented with a few roadblocks — in the form of difficult witnesses, special interests, and so forth. Despite being the first novel in a series, it nevertheless felt pretty well-established, due to the allusions to what had happened in the characters’ pasts. This had its obvious benefits, but it also had one main drawback: we never really get to know the characters.

Ellie is rounded out quite well, but McIlroy (as one example) feels strangely peripheral, despite the fact that he is Ellie’s partner. There was a strange distance maintained between the reader and quite a few characters. The story-centric approach meant this was a quicker read than The Ex; but the latter’s character-centric approach meant we got to know the characters better and therefore become more invested in what happened to them. There is one moment in Dead Connection, clearly intended to elicit a strong emotional response, but because we hadn’t been given enough opportunity to become invested in their fates… It was robbed of some impact.

I have no doubt, as I read more novels in the series, I’ll get to know Hatcher, her brother and other recurring characters better. If you like your crime novels quickly paced and well-written, and are looking for a new series to sink your teeth into, then Dead Connection is a great suggestion. Recommended.

Published in North America by Henry Holt, and in the UK by Faber.

The Ellie Hatcher Series: Dead Connection, Angel’s Tip, 212, Never Tell, All Day and a Night [books 2-5 are published by Harper Collins]

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