****The Ex

photo: Mr. Nixter, creative commons license

Written by Alafair Burke – Even two decades later, New York criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall has never quite forgiven herself for the unnecessarily cruel way she broke up with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Subsequently, however, Jack seems to have found happiness in his career as a best-selling novelist and on the family front with his wife Molly and teenage daughter Buckley. But that happiness was merely a respite. Three years before the novel begins, a mentally disturbed fifteen-year-old murdered thirteen people and injured many more in a Penn Station shooting. One of the dead was Molly Harris.

The boy was the son of prominent investment banker Malcolm Neeley, who’d refused to get the boy treatment or do “anything that would label his son as ‘sick.’” The outraged families of the victims, led by Harris, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Neeley, a suit recently dismissed by the court.

The book opens with the transcript of a police station interview with Harris. An NYPD detective is looking for information about a shooting that occurred earlier in the day: “Boyle: Okay, I’ve turned on the machine, Mr. Harris. Just to make clear, are you here at the First Precinct voluntarily?” Then, “And you’re willing to speak to me of your own accord?” You know immediately that Jack has already made a colossal mistake. He’s talking to the police without a lawyer.

Their flimsy excuse for taking him to the station for the interview, the pretense of needing to put the interview on tape because they’re talking to so many potential witnesses, all are bright flashing neon letters reading, “you’re in the deep water now, Jack!” The interview tells you a lot about Jack as well as the trouble he’s likely in. when the police reveal that one of the three people killed in that morning’s shootings is Malcolm Neeley.

Partly out of her own past guilt and partly because she can’t imagine Jack committing any crime remotely close to a triple murder, Olivia takes on Jack’s case. One of her first challenges is trying to unravel the puzzling sequence of events that lured Jack to the vicinity of the shootings in the first place. It seems to have been an elaborate ruse involving a woman, a book, and a picnic basket, with a big assist from social media. Did this woman even exist?

In her Internet research, especially, Olivia is aided by her office assistant Einer, a smart and savvy young man with a gift for sarcasm. Many of the other secondary characters come across strongly too in Burke’s skilled hands.

In the face of mounting evidence and doubts about Jack, Olivia can’t help but wonder, is this the same man I knew two decades ago? Can you ever really know what someone else is capable of? These are not uncommon questions, and the final reveal is fairly familiar territory as well.

In The Ex, you see a civilized, realistic New York City—not the city of top-to-bottom corruption in Don Winslow’s summer hit, The Force. Burke’s is a city of private schools, functioning public services, trendy night spots, and Armani.

On the short list for an Edgar Award in 2017, this is Alafair Burke’s eleventh crime thriller. She is a professor of criminal law in New York, a former prosecutor and has good genes. She’s the daughter of acclaimed thriller writer James Lee Burke.

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