At mid-career, James Lee Burke wasn’t in the first rank yet, either. With Alafair and three other children to support, he made his living teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Wichita State University; Alafair’s mother, Pearl, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan and met her husband in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, worked as a school librarian.
“My father was writing novels, not publishing,” Alafair says simply. “He had three early novels, then he was out of print for 10 years. He started writing mysteries when I was in college. I assume my Reed tuition bills drove him to genre fiction.”
In fact, there was barely enough money to send Alafair to Reed. Her high school guidance counselor suggested Kansas or Kansas State. “I wanted to leave Kansas,” she recalls. “I got into Berkeley but I didn’t get a dorm, and my parents wouldn’t let me go. I remember that as a war.” Then, she found out Reed was still accepting applications. “One of my teachers said: ‘It’s a small liberal arts college on the West Coast—I think you’ll like it.’”
She got in with financial aid and headed to Portland. “I had heard that Reed was not traditional,” she continues. “When I got there, there were men with long hair, women with unshaved legs. I had no idea it was a hippie school. I probably seemed like an iconoclast in Wichita, so Reed ended up being a good match for me.”
Those early impressions have since provided fodder for her novels (see “Sniffing Out Reed,” page 16). Her father has also turned Reed to fictional use: in a passing reference, Dave Robicheaux’s daughter shows up at the college in Last Car to Elysian Fields, where she’s working on her first novel. “It’s a nice tip of the hat,” says Alafair, “though Alafair Robicheaux as a character never struck me as a Reedie. She seems like someone who would stay in Louisiana.”
At Reed, Alafair Burke caught the bug that led her to practice and teach criminal law. She wrote a thesis with psychology professor Dan Reisberg on the effect of emotion on memory; it fit into Reisberg’s long-running research on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. (He is routinely called as an expert witness in criminal cases.) Reisberg says his former student’s novels have taught him a thing or two about the real-world attitudes and practices of police.
Burke says she respects police officers’ diligence, but sometimes suspects their evidence. That’s particularly true with the confessions they wheedle out of the accused, often using deception and threats. “They’re all motivated to find the truth,” she says. “No one looks to set up someone who’s innocent. The problem is what you know on the street, versus what you need in order [for the case] to hold up beyond a reasonable doubt. They’re not thinking like scientists—‘here’s our theory, let’s try to disprove it.’ Instead, they’re thinking, ‘how are we going to be able to help the prosecutor’?”
When she was at Reed, Burke fell in love with Portland, a city that shares many of her environmental and civic values. But as a prosecutor, she saw a very different side of the city. “Northeast Portland and far-East Portland have very little to do with recycling and Nike and the things that make Portland famous,” she says. “I was aware when I was an undergrad that Portland had a large homeless population. I wasn’t aware of this other underclass—families that live in poverty and squalor. If you live in one of the gentrified neighborhoods, or new ones like the Pearl, and work and eat downtown, you can live in that Portland and not notice it. If you drive east of Southeast 60th Avenue, it’s impossible not to notice.”
It’s sentiments like that—expressed in so many words in the novels by Samantha Kincaid—that rub some readers the wrong way. Kincaid may eat meat with a vengeance and relish an afternoon at the firing range (she’s a crack shot), but she’s also a noodge about recycling and public transit. She even bums rides with her detectives to view crime scenes, because she won’t drive her car to work.
One disgruntled reader took Burke to task online: