When she was in third grade, Alafair Burke’s parents moved the family from South Florida to Wichita, Kansas. The move was fortuitous, but young Alafair was more than a little skeptical.
“They took me from Florida kicking and screaming,” recalls the author, the daughter of a school librarian and crime writer James Lee Burke, who was teaching at Miami Dade College at the time. “Parenting was different back then. Kids didn’t have a say. They’d move us in the middle of the school year. They didn’t bother to tell me we were moving to Kansas — it was my brother who showed me where Kansas was on a map. I was like: ‘Where’s the water?’ It seemed impossible to me. I was crying when we drove away because I would never get to meet and marry Andy Gibb.”
The idea was that Wichita was a safer place to grow up. But quickly the Burkes learned of the existence of the city’s BTK killer — short for “Bind, Torture, Kill” — and soon Burke was being schooled in safety measures, like all the kids in her new neighborhood.
“We hadn’t unpacked the moving boxes when TV reports that there’s a serial killer on the loose,” says Burke, who’s now a professor of law at Hofstra Law School in New York.
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But Burke — who’s back in South Florida this week to talk about her latest novel — credits her childhood interest in that terrible case for a career path that led her to Stanford Law School, a job as a deputy district attorney in Portland, and eventually to write 13 crime novels, two with bestselling writer Mary Higgins Clark. With two series under her belt — one involving NYC detective Ellie Hatcher, the other starring Portland deputy district attorney Samantha Kincaid — she has also written three standalone novels, including her latest, The Ex (Harper, $26.99).
In The Ex, criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall finds herself drawn into a murder involving her ex-boyfriend Jack, a novelist accused of killing the father of a teenage spree shooter whose attack on Penn Station killed Jack’s wife. Olivia is reluctant to involve herself with Jack again — her bad behavior destroyed their relationship years ago — but she knows he couldn’t possibly have murdered anyone. So she takes the case, although a smart prosecutor warns her Jack is guilty and that she’s blinded by old feelings.
Burke — 46 and happily married — believes the idea of the one who got away is universal.
“Anyone who has ever Googled an ex understands that feeling,” Burke says. “You don’t want them back. It’s just this curiosity that wow, that person is still out there but now a stranger to me. It’s like the Adele song Hello.”
Q. You say the BTK killer piqued your interest in crime — is that why you chose to write about it?
When I was old enough to really be thinking about the future, it was furthest thing from my mind because my dad was so good at it. Some people want to pick up their parents’ trade. I went in a different direction and went to law school. Law school brought me to this. I became a prosecutor — not what I thought I’d wind up doing — and meanwhile I was reading crime fiction. I was one of those lawyers thinking, “Some day I’m going to write a book.” When I was reading and a prosecutor would show up on the page, I’d think, “That’s not what my job is!” unless I was reading Linda Fairstein. I thought I lived in a world that would be interesting to see fictionalized. But I really just thought I’d write one book and be a law professor and have the book on my shelf and say, “See? I wrote a book!”
Q. How has the crime fiction landscape changed since you first started writing?
I think that there is an increased respect both for women writers and for crime fiction about women. I guess I would distinguish between the two — there’s a lot of overlap. Initially when I would show up at crime fiction conferences, I would be put on the cozy panels. The only thing the writers would have in common is that we’d be women. There’d be one cozy writer and three other women, one writing police procedurals, another writing legal thrillers, one writing psychological suspense. … That has changed. I also think having a female protagonist, that used to mean an assumption of a certain kind of dainty book. Those stereotypes are ending … there are so many women writing such diverse crime fiction. Another change is that crime fiction has become more sprawling … more ambitious. The campus has gotten a lot bigger.
Q. Why are readers so drawn to crime fiction?
Crime fiction gets ghettoized, but good crime fiction does everything literary fiction does. It’s got memorable characters, a sense of place — and things happen! People like crime fiction because it’s almost like being on a roller coaster. In the middle of the book, everything feels chaotic, the pieces aren’t coming together. But then you understand how X connects to Y, and the roller coaster stops, and you ease back into the station. You get past the uncomfortable middle, and you feel everything is right.
Q. You’ve written two books with Mary Higgins Clark. What’s collaborating on a novel like?
It’s really fun. More people should do it! 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,” and I can pick back the thread. You hear about the writing rooms for TV shows — we have our own writing room. I think we’re both enjoying it.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
Alafair Burke appears:
▪ 7 p.m. Monday, Murder on the Beach, 273 Pineapple Grove Way, Delray Beach
▪ 8 p.m. Tuesday, Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables