Wednesday, June 5, 2013

If You Were Here by Alafair Burke - Book Review

Perhaps the most difficult paragraph to write in a novel is the first one. In the space of a hundred or so words, the writer must convince the reader to continue more deeply, to get to know the characters, to delve further into an imagined world. Once again, Alafair Burke has accomplished this in her ninth noveI If You Were Here (Harper-Collins, 2013, 384 pages, $26.99).

On a subway platform in New York, Nicky Cervantes, an athletic kid who needs money rips a cell phone from the hands of a seemingly defenseless woman and begins to run away. Instead of standing and screaming, the woman chases him along the platform, he slips and falls onto the tracks as a train is approaching. Whereupon, the woman jumps to the tracks and lifts him back onto the platform, rescues her phone and disappears into the crowd, initiating a short-lived story in the press and a much more interesting story as journalist McKenna Jordan is sent a blurry phone recording of the incident and recognizes her long lost friend, Susan Hauptman.

McKenna's, known as Kenzie, back story emerges as the novel progresses. Once a promising assistant district attorney in New York, Kenzie and Susan, a West Point graduate and daughter of a powerful and manipulative father, a general himself, has been in hiding, missing for ten years and presumed dead, except for the continue search by her friend. Kenzie's husband Patrick is also a West Point graduate who was introduced to her by Susan. Kenzie's editor at a magazine looking a lot like a cross between New York Magazine and a neighborhood slinger, assigns her to write a story about a case involving a police shooting of a young black man that had, seemingly through her own error, ruined her career. The two separate threads run together as mysterious coincidences wipe the phone video from all known sources and her career is once again ruined. She embarks on two campaigns, one to find her friend and the other to explore the earlier case, which soon seem to merge in strange and mysterious ways. There follows a story fraught with dangers for Kenzie as she seeks to restore her reputation and explore Susan's disappearance, amidst discovering a hidden life and experiencing increasing doubts about Susan's relationship with Patrick.

Burke, a former prosecutor herself, has refined the hanging chapter ending, multiple alternative story lines, and the development of complex plot lines that keep the reader moving forward in her novels. If You Were Here is a standalone story combining investigative journalism with a legal/police procedural that becomes increasingly convoluted as Kenzie digs deeper and enters into a world of potential danger to herself. A dark, mysterious character calling himself Michael Carter is a master of spycraft who is eliminating Kenzie's clues as she discovers them, responding to the dictates of an unknown master. Meanwhile, Kenzie is revisting the incident that led to her leaving the DA's office. McKenna Jordan has the potential to be the central character in a new series of novels, which would be the third Burke has embarked upon. She has yet to settle upon a character she wishes to develop or to take on the longer literary novel that might prove to be a breakout for her. The present novel becomes somewhat mired in legal issues and police procedure before successfully resolving itself. It also lurches between being a taught thriller and an exploration of Kenzie's relationships. I wondered who, exactly, the audience is. 

Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is the author of "two power house series" (Sun-Sentinel) that have earned her a reputation for creating strong, believable, and eminently likable female characters, such as NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Alafair's novels grow out of her experience as a prosecutor in America's police precincts and criminal courtrooms, and have been featured by The Today Show, People Magazine, The New York Times, MSNBC, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Chicago Sun-Times. Dennis Lehane has called her "one of the finest young crime writers working today." A graduate of Stanford Law School and a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair is now a Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School, where she teaches criminal law and procedure. She lives in New York City and spends too much time on Facebook and Twitter, but has no plans to quit.

If You Were Here: A Novel of Suspense (Harper, 2013, 384 pages, $25.99) succeeds on a number of levels, while sometimes becoming mired in legal detail. Alafair Burke can spin a story that keeps the reader moving forward with attractive, though conflicted and complex characters. While the story contains elements of what might be called “women's fiction,” it remains hard-headed and controlled enough to maintain its appeal to most readers of suspense fiction, that is, it toes a line that such writing often crosses in one direction or the other. The book was supplied to me by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.