With five years of prosecutorial experience and her Reed education to fall back on, teaching criminal law hasn’t been a leap for Burke. And her literary sideline has some fans on campus. “Faculty and students at Hofstra truly enjoy Alafair’s books,” says Associate Dean for Faculty Development Joanna Grossman, “but I think most of us read them for fun rather than to ply our wares. One of her colleagues, however, has taught one of her novels in his Law and Literature seminar.”
Writing mystery novels hasn’t been a giant step for her, either. Alafair’s father is James Lee Burke, the New York Times bestselling novelist and two-time winner of mystery writing’s most prestigious honor, the Edgar Award. The Burkes come from a long line of lawyers and writers in the bayou country of Louisiana and the borderlands of South Texas, which is where James Lee Burke’s protagonists—vigilante cop Dave Robicheaux and down-at-heels lawyer Billy Bob Holland—ply their violent trade.
When Alafair Burke was ready to pitch her first manuscript, she naturally took it to Philip Spitzer, the New York agent who represents her father, as well as such prominent mystery writers as Michael Connelly, Jan Burke (no relation), and Mickey Spillane. “I was reluctant at first,” she says. “He’s the family agent—I felt like he would have to take it. I made him promise he’d refer it to another agent if it wasn’t his bag.”
Spitzer insists it was. “You could see right away that she could write,” he recalls. “We had another publisher bidding, and Henry Holt got it. It seemed like a logical place to go since they had lost Sue Grafton and were looking to develop another writer of that caliber in that genre. And obviously she was very promoteable. . . . It was built-in publicity.”
Burke concurs. “It certainly doesn’t hurt that my father is who he is,” she says. “Most editors at the major New York publishing houses use a writer’s ability to get an agent as a proxy for quality. If you send a manuscript around without an agent, the assumption is that you couldn’t get one and your work is lousy.”
Still, her father’s coattails can only take her so far, she says. “For many people who pick up the book because of the name, the downside is that they expect it’s going to be a James Lee Burke novel, even though it’s by a woman in her thirties who never spent time in the South.”
Where her father’s novels are dark and morally ambiguous, Alafair’s novels have a dry, clinical precision. They are more likely to raise questions about the right way to gather evidence and build a case than whether justice is better served by prison or a bullet to the brain.
Will Swarts ’92, a financial writer in New York and avid mystery reader who knows Alafair Burke personally, confesses to enjoying the daughter’s mysteries, while being truly mesmerized by the father’s. “Alafair confines herself to the realm she knows best—the culture of bureaucracy, backroom politics,” he says. “James Lee Burke excels at the mental pathology of violence and the dark potential it has in the minds of his protagonists. Alafair sketches a character who clearly believes in the framework of the law. Her father’s characters live almost entirely outside the law, even though they’re officers of the law.”
Alafair Burke is comfortable avoiding that darker territory, even though she knows more successful writers have plumbed those depths. “They have their own demons,” she says. “My father’s Dave Robicheaux—his mother was murdered; Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch—his mother was a prostitute who was murdered; Sue Grafton’s character was an orphan. They all have sad backstories.
Samantha is a much more realistic portrayal of the people who do the heavy lifting.
They’re normal people with normal backgrounds who could just as well be accountants, and don’t have to think about child rape and murder and sexual abuse. She herself is a very optimistic, healthy, average person.”
Fans appreciate that down-to-earth approach. “I love your books, especially because they are so realistic,” writes a reader named Stephanie, in a post to Burke’s online forum. “Although I love ‘legal fiction,’ as a deputy prosecutor myself, I often find myself sitting in my chair screaming, ‘But I’d NEVER get away with that!! The judge would kill me!’ Every time I read one of your novels, I get excited about my job all over again.”
Others find fault with Burke’s novels for having overly detailed legal plots and under-developed characters. Publishers Weekly said about Missing Justice: “Burke confidently lays out the procedural details, but she’s less sure at rendering complex personal relationships.” Kirkus Reviews published this hopeful assessment of her newest book, Close Case: “Burke hits her stride . . . Now that she’s mastered the high concept and the breadth, maybe next time Burke can deliver the pace and momentum that would raise her to the first rank.”