Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Alafair Burke ’91 has created a series of popular mystery novels replete with tough women lawyers, corrupt cops, sociopathic socialites, plus plenty of gunfire to go around.

By Mitchell Hartman | June 19, 2006

There is a moment in Alafair Burke’s first novel, Judgment Calls, when you just know her main character—the idealistic and independent-minded young deputy district attorney, Samantha Kincaid— is headed for a fall.

After Kincaid is ordered off a case—involving the brutal rape of a child prostitute from the mean streets of East Portland—she goes right back out to stalk the perps again, certain they’re guilty well beyond a reasonable doubt. The rest of the novel unveils just how right Kincaid is to buck her superiors and trust her gut, as evidence emerges that the chauvinistic supervising prosecutor who told her to drop the case may be a predator bent on shielding the criminals to save his own skin.

Kincaid’s loose-cannon D.A. act kicks up a storm of trouble, including disgrace among her coworkers, an ill-fated fling with her former high school sweetheart (now a Portland detective working on the case), and a gunfight that she barely escapes alive.

Whether redemption follows Kincaid’s fall from professional grace is best left to the reader to discover.

It is less difficult to discern that Kincaid’s creator is doing just fine. Since Alafair Burke emerged on the mystery-writing scene with Judgment Calls in 2003, she has put out two more Samantha Kincaid novels (Missing Justice and Close Case) in quick succession with Henry Holt and Company, a major New York publishing house. All three are now out in paperback, and sales are steadily rising, according to Burke’s agent, Philip Spitzer. A fourth police procedural, this one set in New York City, where Burke now lives, will be published next year.

Compare Burke’s CV to Kincaid’s bio and you’ll find more than a passing resemblance. Burke grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and attended Reed. Kincaid grew up in Southeast Portland (and knew Reed by its somewhat unsavory reputation) and attended Harvard. From there, they both studied law at Stanford and landed the kinds of jobs one expects of a Stanford law grad.

Kincaid’s career backstory includes a prestigious position in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, followed by marriage to a sleazy, two-timing, hotshot lawyer who works for Nike. His job brings them to Portland, where, after a bitter divorce, Kincaid takes an entry-level job as a deputy district attorney in the vice division. As Judgment Calls begins, she has just been given a case in the Major Crimes Unit, which prosecutes serious felonies including rape and murder.

Burke’s career includes summer jobs at Portland’s top corporate law firm, Stoel Rives, an externship with the U.S. Attorney’s office, and a clerkship with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After that, she became a deputy district attorney in Portland, trying more than 30 criminal cases.

And this is where the author and her fictional alter ego part ways. After several years as a prosecutor, Burke left cop shops and courtrooms behind. She moved to New York and joined the faculty at Hofstra University Law School, where she is up for tenure this year.

As of novel number three, Samantha Kincaid is still sticking it out in the rough-and-tumble world of the Portland D.A.’s office. Her on-again off-again relationship with the handsome detective is off again. She has faced down ruthless pimps who traffic in child prostitutes, wealthy land speculators who kill for economic gain, and corrupt cops who murder old ladies to protect their racket. She is bruised—physically and emotionally—but ready for more.

“Samantha is an extreme version of me,” Burke says. “Her dry sarcastic sense of humor, her cynicism. Samantha’s values and voice are pretty close to mine.” On her website Burke even admits to a bit of envy: “In some ways, Samantha’s clearly better than I am,” she writes. “She’s taller, more diligent, and could beat me in a race without breaking a sweat.”

Burke’s sentiment extends to career choices. “I’m a bit of a cop-out,” she says of her time as a deputy D.A. “I did it for five years. When you start, you give up some of your innocence. There’s rape, murder, child sex offenses . . . the trio of things you don’t want to be thinking about on a daily basis. It eats away at you. I don’t think I would have been the same person if I’d stayed.

“At one point in the series,” Burke continues, “Samantha makes the observation that if you stick in the job long enough, you stop caring—or it really gets to you. She’s not there yet. But when she does get there, she’s going to have to decide what to do. It’s never going to be just another case file to her. She’s never going to stop caring.”

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 not 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.”

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. 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 [1986–] 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. 

There’s no denying that the Samantha Kincaid novels are feminist, though—at least in the “women can do anything/women can do it all” sense. Kincaid works law enforcement 24/7, sacrificing love life and family relationships in the process; character Jessica Walters, a veteran prosecutor and lesbian mom-to-be, out trash-talks the cops as she tracks gangbangers while eight months pregnant. These characters fit into a sub-genre of women’s detective fiction with a long pedigree that includes Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane, Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones write in their book Detective Agency that women mystery writers use “an established popular formula in order to investigate not just a particular crime but the more general offenses in which the patriarchal power structure of contemporary society itself is potentially incriminated.” Writer Claire McNab puts it this way in the book: “Women who write crime fiction may yet be the ultimate subversives. The shock troops of feminists come and go, the backlash swells, but, ignoring the tumult, nice women sit down to typewriters and word processors and create deception.”

Burke also fits the bill. “From Perry Mason forward,” she says, “the depiction of women lawyers in the workplace is nonexistent—until L.A. Law, when they start to emerge. But they’re stereotypes—sour-faced and serious about work, or bimbos who aren’t serious about anything.”

By contrast, Burke insists that the world Samantha Kincaid inhabits is welcoming to women, at least once you scratch the surface. “Law enforcement has been traditionally male-dominated,” she says. “The veneer might seem sexist—men making offensive jokes, not being very politic. But the actual meat of the prosecutor’s office can be very friendly to women. When you talk to women, their experience is better than at law firms. Look at who become partners—it’s not women.”

Even though she’s given her character a fair dose of testosterone, Burke herself shies away from law enforcement’s most popular accessory. “Dad took me out once to teach me how to shoot,” she recalls. “What I had in mind was the FBI on TV—sterile and safe. Where he took me was this vacant land in Montana with a bunch of guys shooting guns. I’m a little bit afraid of guns. I see them and it makes me nervous.”

As Burke settles into life in Manhattan’s West Village, her time as a prosecutor in Portland is slowly fading from view. She was halfway through another Samantha Kincaid mystery when she dropped it and started writing a new novel, due out next year, introducing a new protagonist: detective Ellie Hatcher, NYPD.

While Hatcher takes Burke out of the courtroom (as a detective, the character works on the “order” side of the law-and-order equation), the author also continues to develop storylines that have a personal twist.

For instance, she met her husband, Sean Simpson, via, an internet dating service. (They were married in January.) She’s now working on a plot involving danger and deception in the online dating world. She imagines a scenario in which the man and woman sitting next to her at a local coffee shop are on their first date after corresponding on the internet. Could he be about to take her hostage? Could he have some other nefarious designs?

Online dating, she says, “takes you beyond the friend of a friend. With me and Sean, we cannot find six degrees of separation in our lives. That’s scary. You’re putting your trust in someone and believing what they say about themselves.”

On the other hand, the roll of the cyberdice that brought the couple together was probably the only chance they had of ever meeting. Simpson is a former army captain, a West Point graduate who now heads up security for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s a conservative Republican, she a moderate Democrat.

“We have to be the only West Point-Reed couple in the country,” she says. “Even if we did have a mutual friend, I don’t think they’d think we’d ever hit it off.”

And in small ways, life for Burke continues to imitate art. She recently added a new member to the family: Duffer, a compact French bulldog identical to the one Samantha Kincaid dotes on in the novels (to the exclusion of her boyfriend). “He’s our little obsession,” Burke says.

And then there’s an obsession that goes further back, to her favorite children’s book—From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s about a brother and sister from Connecticut who run away from home and camp out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sneaking around after hours right under the noses of museum security guards, as they try to solve the mystery behind a beautiful sculpture attributed to Michelangelo, which may or may not be a forgery.

“It’s sort of eerie that I married someone who works at the Met,” Burke admits sheepishly. “I get to go through those corridors all the time now.”

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