Alafair Burke, a former deputy district attorney and current professor of criminal law at New York’s Hofstra Univesity, is the author of two crime series, one featuring featuring Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid, and the second focusing on NYPD detective, Ellie Hatcher. Publishers Weekly dubbed the third installment of the latter series, the 2010 novel 212, a “white-knuckle thriller.” Similar praise came from Booklist, calling the book “up-to-the-minute, action-packed crime fiction.”
Burke’s first stand-alone crime fiction, Long Gone, is just out and has earned praise from fellow writers. Dennis Lehane found the work “a tremendous novel, and Alafair Burke is one of the finest young crime writers working today.” Likewise, Nelson DeMille termed Long Gone “a very clever and very smart novel by a very clever and smart writer.”
Alafair, welcome to Scene of the Crime. It’s a real pleasure to have you with us. Let’s start things with a discussion of the setting of your novels.
My recent books have all been set in New York City, where I’ve lived since 2003. Specifically, most of the books unfold in Manhattan.
What things about New York City make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Manhattan is iconic. Even readers who haven’t been here have some understanding of its appearance and energy. I try to take those readers into nooks and crannies of the city they might not know as much about.
I want location to be a main character. I started writing about New York only after I’d lived here long enough to love it and be able to bring it to the page in an uncliched way. I also saw new plot possibilities in New York. My first three novels (the Samantha Kincaid series) were set in Portland, Oregon, where there is no such thing as anonymity. The plots of those for three books took advantage of that city’s small landscape. In the New York books, in contrast, I can’t have characters just happen to know everyone they bump into on the street. I can, however, tap into that uniquely New York feeling of being completely alone in a crowd.
In Long Gone, Alice Humphrey gets what appears to be a dream job managing a tiny new gallery in the Meatpacking District. Her life finally seems on track until she shows up to work one morning to find the gallery completely gone — stripped vacant as if it had never been there. The man who hired her is dead on the bare floor. Suddenly she realizes that everything she thought she knew was a lie. She cannot find the true owner of the business. She cannot prove that the artist she represented ever really existed. That kind of story only works if it’s completely believable that Alice lived her day to day life around people she had no real connections with. That’s a true New York story.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I find inspiration for setting every day as I walk through my neighborhood. My search for quotidian details about this city I’ve grown to love so much makes me pay closer attention to my surroundings. I notice places and moments I might otherwise overlook. It’s a terrific thing.
Location undoubtedly shapes the characters who live there. One of my series characters, Ellie Hatcher, is the person she is because she moved to New York City from her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. My new standalone character, Alice Humphrey — from a family of privilege and celebrity, but struggling to make her own way — could not exist in any other American city.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I think the best feedback I’ve received about my depiction of New York City came from Michael Connelly, who just wrote a short essay about Long Gone for Amazon. He said he thought it would be daunting to write about the greatest city in the world, but that I had made it look easy. Doesn’t get any better than that.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’ve made some mistakes, but so far, not on location. Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’ll get a hundred emails notifying me of my many goofs.
Of the New York-based novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
From Dead Connection, the first novel in the Hatcher series:
“She’d probably be a lawyer in Kansas now if it weren’t for Jess – or at least for her mother’s inability not to worry about his pattern of mixing alcohol (and most likely other substances) with a general penchant for recklessness. After two years of watching her mother age ten, Ellie realized the best thing she could do for her mother – and herself – was to leave Wichita to look after her brother.
“Then a strange thing happened. She fell in love – not with a man, but with New York City. Young people, living beyond their means in cramped apartments, walking to the corner deli for take-out – tiny specks moving intently, carving out their own patterns among the chaos. Life in the city was exciting and unpredictable, exactly the opposite of the endless enclaves of ranch homes she’d known as a child. She was turned down for every paralegal job she applied for, but she learned not to care. Waiting tables paid more anyway, at least on the good nights.
“Then a stranger thing happened. As is inevitable in any relationship, Ellie started to notice the darker side of the city she loved. Beneath the tall buildings, upscale boutiques, and bright lights lived signs of a seedier and more harsh New York. A woman with fading bruises, pausing discreetly at the garbage outside of the bakery, eyeing the half-eaten croissant lying just beneath that discarded cigarette butt. A homeless man tucking himself more tightly beneath urine-soaked cardboard boxes, hoping to avoid a roust to the shelters that would not permit his one and only possession – the matted beagle snuggled into the crook of his knees. Too many men waiting at the Port Authority for the young girls who arrive from faraway towns with big dreams but nowhere to sleep.
“Ellie tried to look away – to ignore the signs like everyone else. But as she strived for blissful ignorance, the problems only grew more glaring. She realized that only one job would allow her to love this city the way she wanted to. She could be the person who stopped to help instead of looking away. It took three years of part-time classes at John Jay, but she finally became a cop. Then after four years of hard work, she made detective. One serious boyfriend had come and gone along the way, but she still had New York. And she still had her job.”
What’s next for your protagonist?
I’m excited about giving my standalone character, Alice Humphrey, her day in the sun with Long Gone. My next book will be an Ellie Hatcher novel.
Alafair, thanks much for talking with us at Scene of the Crime, and good luck with Long Gone.
For more information on Alafair Burke, visit her homepage.