We at CapRadio Reads are very excited to host New York Times best-selling author Alafair Burke on Jan. 29 (details at the bottom of this column). You should be, too. As they say in the publishing biz, she’s “A-list,” and her new novel, The Wife, is a must-read.
She’s prolific, too. Through 12 novels in three crime series, and in five stand-alone books, the crime novelist has taken readers into the darkest corners of the criminal mind. In each case, justice prevailed—sometimes not the kind readers normally expect. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages.
Now, in her second “domestic thriller” after the mega-selling The Ex, she dwells behind the scenes of a seemingly blissful marriage to reveal the twisted intrigues that haunt it.
Given the ongoing unmasking of alleged sexual misconduct by men in positions of power, the main theme of The Wife is uncannily timely, seeing that it was written and went to press before the #metoo movement took off.
Everything appears ideal now that single mom Angela and university professor-celebrity author Jason Powell have married and settled in a gorgeous house in New York City. In her new persona, the tragic secrets of Angela’s past seem safely put away at last.
But her marriage begins to unravel and her past catches up to her when two women come forth to accuse her husband of sexual harassment and rape. Angela believes Jason is innocent, but is forced to question everything he says as the legal noose tightens around them. Then, much to her confusion, clues begin to surface, one of the accusers mysteriously vanishes and her safe and happy life is in jeopardy. She’s always said she’d go to extremes to save it...
The Wife is being compared to Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris,A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena, and The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware—which means a tense story told by an unreliable narrator, punctuated by a completely unexpected ending.
Burke, 48, partnered with “queen of suspense” Mary Higgins Clark in 2013 to co-write their four-title “Under Suspicion” suspense series, centered on a TV show featuring cold-case murders. Their latest collaboration is the best-selling Every Breath You Take.
Burke graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and graduated at the top of her class from Stanford Law School. She served as a deputy district attorney in Portland and now teaches law at Hofstra University School of Law in New York.
Her father is Edgar Award-winning novelist James Lee Burke, author of nearly 40 mysteries, most notably the 21-title “Dave Robicheaux” series.
I caught up with her via email. Visit her at www.alafairburke.com.
Q: You grew up in a household with a school librarian mother and a university professor-novelist dad. It’s safe to say you were an early reader and storyteller, yes?
A: There’s no doubt (they) shaped my passions for reading and writing. Reading was a constant—our house was filled with books—and every member of our family is a storyteller.
I was convinced I wanted to write mysteries since I was a young kid, and would tinker on my father’s manual typewriter, cranking out page-turners like “Murder at the Roller Disco.” Seeing my dad write every single day, even when he was out of print for a decade, I learned (some would say the hard way as his kid!) that you need to write for reasons other than income.
Q: Your family moved from Fort Lauderdale to Wichita, Kansas, when you were a child. One of the first things to greet you was the public announcement that a serial killer was on the loose. Please tell us about the connection between that and your eventual gravitation toward crime fiction.
A: The moving boxes had barely been unpacked in Wichita when police announced a connection among seven unsolved murders of women and even children. On a map of his targets, our house was roughly in the middle. The man who claimed responsibility called himself BTK, a gruesome acronym, short for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
Like other Wichita children of that era, I gained some pretty dark habits: check the phone line to be sure the wires aren’t cut, keep the basement door locked at all times, barricade yourself in the bathroom with the phone if you have to call 911.
My love of mystery stories and my fascination with crime and the legal system were born out of that time. I began reading mysteries after moving into a world where the killer could be anyone, and where an arrest appeared hopeless.
My mother would take me each week to the public library for a new stack of books. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I had an unending quench for mysteries. I moved from the “Encyclopedia Brown” series to Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie, and eventually to Sue Grafton and Mary Higgins Clark. In those books, as opposed to Wichita, smart sleuthing always paid off and order was always restored.
Q: You used your background as an assistant district attorney in Portland to create Samantha Kincaid, a Portland prosecutor who starred in your first three novels. How intertwined were Alafair Burke and Samantha Kincaid? There must be a balancing act in getting just enough of yourself, but not too much, into a signature character.
A: I spent five years in the same office as Samantha Kincaid, so there is overlap between our careers, certainly. Of the main characters I’ve created, she’s probably most reflective of my own sensibilities.
However, she’s much more brazen and confrontational than I am. She’s also funnier, taller, thinner and more neurotic, and could beat me in a race without breaking a sweat. I suppose she’s a better and exaggerated version of me.
Q: Next came NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher, who leads a five-book series that has a couple of threads running through it—serial killers and Internet abuse. Any link to that serial killer back in Kansas?
A: For half a second, I entertained the idea of writing either a book or a long-form article about the case itself. But I realized I didn’t want to give that man any more attention than he’d already gotten.
I also saw that my real desire was to talk about the toll certain crimes take upon an entire community, so I gave Ellie Hatcher a backstory in which she grew up in Wichita, raised by a cop haunted by his failure to catch a serial killer. But Ellie’s a cop in a very different time and place.
Q: Of the four stand-alones you’ve written, The Ex and The Wife could be termed “domestic thrillers.” What relationship do you see between the two?
A: The Ex and The Wife both explore how deeply we actually know those closest to us. There’s something terrifying about the idea that you’ve been sharing your life with someone who has been keeping dangerous secrets. Loving someone makes you vulnerable, and that vulnerability exposes you to all sorts of hypotheticals.
I also think we enjoy seeing characters in scenarios we can at least imagine ourselves in, and most of us have been in a relationship before.
Q: As the details of Angela’s terrible secret are revealed in The Wife, the reader sees her in a different light. Her character transforms from seemingly naïve in certain ways, to one who has the iron core of a survivor. It was one of the big reveals in a novel full of them.
A: Before I start writing, I must have a sense of who the character is as a person, so I know how she will respond. Angela Powell has a dark, traumatic past that has shaped her in ways that surface as the novel unfolds.
Q: The ending is certainly a shock, which points, I think, to the effectiveness of the “unreliable narrator,” that literary technique found in Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and, earlier, Shutter Island, to name a few.
A : Sowing doubts about the reliability of a character’s interior voice is tricky business. Part of the bargain is that a character should have an understandable reason to withhold, massage or even misremember information. The best twists I’ve ever written have come to me sideways, and always after I truly know the characters and the events that have brought them to that moment.
A good ending can’t be predictable, obviously, but ideally it should feel inevitable once revealed to the reader.
Q: You were seemingly prescient when writing The Wife, given the #metoo movement and the ongoing fraternity of powerful men being brought down by their sexual transgressions.
A : I certainly had no way of knowing that we’d be in this moment when I began the book. But accusations of sexual misconduct by accomplished and respected men are certainly nothing new.
One thing I noticed along the way was that when a man gets catapulted into the spotlight, the public gaze inevitably shifts to include the man’s private partner, his wife. We wonder if she knew, and we begin to make judgments about the kind of woman she must be. She is in a terrible position. She becomes part of the narrative, even though she is in some sense one of his victims.
Q: Mary Higgins Clark turned 90 on Christmas Eve. How remarkable that you partnered with the “queen of suspense” for the “Under Suspicion” series over recent years. How did that happen, and what’s the dynamic?
A: Mary wrote a book called I’ve Got You Under My Skin (2014), which involved a TV show that revisits cold cases. She realized there was potential for a series but still wanted to write her annual stand-alones. She decided to work with a co-author to develop the series. My understanding is that she considered a number of people who were already writing crime fiction, and I was lucky enough to get a phone call.
We’ve had a ball working together. If one pretty good storyteller like me sits down with a really, really good storyteller like her, it’s amazing how much we can get done in a day. We’ll write very little at first. We’ll talk through character, story, plot and setting, all the things that make a good book good. We get more done in one day than I get done by myself in a month.
When you’re by yourself, when you hit a wall, you think, “I’ve got enough for today, I’ll think about this problem tomorrow.” But if you have someone else to work with, she can say, “Here’s how you can fix it.” You hear about the “writing rooms” for TV shows—we have our own writing room.
Q: I think I’ve read every book your dad has written (and I’ve interviewed him twice), and especially love the Dave Robicheaux series. As you are acutely aware, Dave rescues and soon adopts a little girl in his novel Heaven’s Prisoners (1988) and he and his wife Annie name her Alafair. As she matures over ensuing novels—including his new one, Robicheaux—there are situations in the fictitious Alafair’s life that mirror your own. Is it too much to say that you became an ongoing character in your father’s books?
A: A few of the details of Alafair’s younger years were based on me, like her tennis shoes that had “Right” and “Left” written on them, and her quacking Donald Duck hat. And, of course, we share a first name with my father’s maternal grandmother.
As she grew up, my father gave her some pieces of my educational and professional path. But she is definitely a fictional character. That doesn’t stop people from asking me if my parents found me on an airplane or if I have a three-legged pet raccoon named Tripod. No and no.
Q: What can your fans expect in the next book?
A: I’m working on the next Hatcher novel, which will take her back home to Wichita.
Q: Anything else?
A: One of the best perks of a writing career is meeting readers and talking about books. I’m looking forward to my trip to Sacramento.
EVENT: Capital Public Radio's “Authors On Stage” with New York Times best-selling author Alafair Burke for her new novel, “The Wife,” in conversation with Allen Pierleoni (question-answer session to follow).
WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 (doors open at 5:15 p.m.)
WHERE: Capital Public Radio, 7055 Folsom Blvd, on the Sac State campus
COST: $30 (includes admission and a 30 percent-discounted autographed copy of The Wife) or $10 entry fee without a copy of the book
REGISTER: At capradio.org/reads