Category Archives: Alafair Burke

2009 Favorites on Screen (Big and Small)

My friends over at Crimespree Magazine* recently asked me to compile a list of favorite TV shows and films of 2009, whether current to the year or viewed on DVD.  My number of visits to the theater this year was in the single digits, and some were wasted on duds like Men Who Stare at Goats (waste of George Clooney) and 2012 (waste of John Cusack), so the list is dominated by TV shows. 

Nevertheless, I thought I’d share an expanded list here in the hopes of learning about your favorites as well.  Maybe my list will change after I finally see The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, An Education, Zombieland, and all the other films I missed, but here’s where the tally stands today.

Dexter – In the event you’re still catching up on DVD, DVR, hulu, or on-demand,** I won’t spoil the fun by mentioning the scene that pushed this to the ultra tippy top of my list, but John Lithgow was deliciously, disturbingly evil, and the show’s writers have proven they will take risks to ensure that every season surprises and surpasses. 

Up ­ – As much as I’ve loved other animated features, this is the first one that made me laugh, sob, and wish (and momentarily believe) that the chubby little cubscout was a real, live boy so I could adopt him. Extra points for bringing back the wonderful Ed Asner.

Up in the Air – ­ It’s pure coincidence that my two favorite films of the year both involve the word Up. This is the kind of movie they just don’t make any more: good, solid, simple grown-up story telling. George Clooney has never seemed so real. (Can I adopt him, too, but in a different way?)

30 Rock – ­ I cherish my twenty-four-ish minutes each week with the folks at TGS. Tina Fey recently told Entertainment Weekly that, other than her choice to have a child, asking Alec Baldwin to take the role of Jack Donaghy was her best decision. I’ve never met her daughter, but I have to think she’s at best at close second. Incidentally, I want to adopt Tina Fey, too, to be my BFF.  In my dreams, we write a TV pilot together.  “Want to go to there.”

Glee – The dry humor of Jane Lynch and the earnestness of high school chorus geeks, wrapped together in one big snarky, happy bundle. It’s as if the TV gods came together to create a show specifically for me.  I love the show so much I based my criminal law students’ final exam on a heist pulled off by Mr. Shuester, Rachel, Flnn & Quinn.  Poor Sue Sylvester perished after taking a hit to the noggin with a Cheerios trophy.  Now if only the actual show could incorporate a mystery arc.

Battlestar Galactica ­ – I was slow to come to this series because I still tell myself I don’t like sci-fi. Well, if loving this is wrong, I don’t want to be right. We watched the entire series in a matter of months and
now wish we could lobotomize the BSG-parts of our brains so we could experience it all over again.  (Special shout-out to friend and author Lisa Unger for finally getting me on the BSG train.)

The Hangover – I must have a sixteen-year-old boy hiding among my multiple Sybil-esque personalities, because I swear I could not stop laughing when I saw this movie.  Granted, I can no longer remember why I was giggling so incessantly, but I also can’t remember why I had so much fun on that one spring break, but I’m nevertheless convinced I enjoyed myself.

The Shield – The series finale was simultaneously shocking and unflinchingly human.  This show consistently proved how well the medium of television can explore character.  Never seen it?  You don’t know what you’re missing.  Start with Season 1 on DVD.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – This was the most creative work I’ve seen in a long time.  The adaptation of the classic books to a contemporary film, the visual choices, the familiar Wes Anderson vibe in a new medium: I loved it all.  Added bonus: Another win in the George Clooney column (officially getting him out of my mental doghouse for that horrible Goats movie).

Lost – Polar bears, time travel, numerology, the mystical Jacob?  It really is enough to make even a writer’s head hurt.  But that image of Juliet peering up at Sawyer, managing to say, “I love you, James.  I love you so much,” was enough to remind even the craftiest, puzzle-solving viewer that the secrets of the island don’t ultimately matter.  The show is about people.  (Check out the video from 2:42 if you have any doubts.) 

Tie: Modern Family or Community.  Too soon to tell here, but I’m cautiously optimistic that one of these two new sit-coms will eventually fill the gaping hole left in my comedic existence since the demise of the sublime Arrested Development.

There you go, just in time for some last-minute DVD purchases for the holidays.  

So, come on, let me have it:  What did I miss? 

*Crimespree is the Entertainment Weekly of the crime fiction scene.  If you’re a ‘Rati reader, you’ll probably love it.  Find out more here.

** When did we start living in the future?

Forgive the Tiger Talk

 by Alafair Burke

Unless you’ve been in a stuffing-induced food coma since Thanksgiving, you’ve probably heard that Tiger Woods was in the news lately for more than just his game.  Given my obsessions with golf, celebrities, and secrets, I can’t resist sharing a few random thoughts I had on the matter. 

When the story (insert virtual air quotes for those of you disgusted by the news coverage) first broke, I tried to convince myself I had high-minded reasons for following it.  At first, I feared for Tiger’s well-being after the initial reports of serious injuries.  Then as a former domestic violence prosecutor, I wondered whether Florida law enforcement was seriously considering investigating Tiger’s wife as some reports suggested.

But there’s also the voyeurism.  We all know (I hope) that we don’t really know celebrities, only the public images that publicists and managers have carefully crafted for us.  But despite that cognitive understanding, consistent and prolonged exposure to those public faces sometimes creates sticky impressions of familiarity.  After more than two decades of nightly Letterman monologues, I confess that David Letterman seemed like a known quantity.  And after countless golf tournaments and Nike ads, so did Tiger.

Now I know.

But I’ve been thinking less about Tiger than about his women.

Rachel Uchitel, the woman first named by the National Enquirer, has seen more than an average person’s media coverage, as photographs online track her journey from grieving 9-11 widow to healing new bride to red-velvet-rope vixen. 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who is the woman behind all of these faces?

And then there’s Tiger’s wife, Elin Nordegren, who went from swimsuit model to au pair to marriage and motherhood.

 

I’ve seen countless images of her biting her nails at the 18th green, smiling at her husband, and holding the babies, but I’ve never heard her voice.  Who would have suspected that quiet, smiling, waif of a woman had it in her to (allegedly) take a pitching wedge to the windows of a Cadillac Escalade? 

My guess is she’ll stand by her man, at least in the short-term, but we’ll all be wondering whether it’s out of love or savviness.  With Tiger struggling to hold onto his commercial endorsements, reporters claim Elin’s out to revise her pre-nup. Ten years of marriage no longer required.  55 million dollars instead of 20.  Perhaps clauses that penalize further “transgressions”?*  Jewelry, candy, and flowers just aren’t going to cut it.

We love to fret about the public fascination with celebrity scandals, but I have to confess that I get it.  When I was a prosecutor, my daily work let me peer behind the facade to reveal the secrets people carry.  Celebrity scandals satisfy that same itch – the realization (and validation) that everyone makes mistakes, no one is what he seems, and we all have multiple personas.  That perfect son, husband, and father might be an insatiable dog on his trips to Vegas.  That scantily clad hostess at the nightclub might have lost someone she loved to tragedy.  And that quiet wife in the background might just be a hundred solid pounds of fortitude.

Thanks for tolerating my Tiger talk.  Is anyone else willing to out themselves as a celebrity watcher?  What seemingly superficial stories have kept you riveted and why?

*I found no comfort in the company I was keeping by following this story when I learned the following (pathetic) tidbit: After Tiger’s public admission of “transgressions,” online searches for the definition of that word topped Google’s search list. 

The Ultimate Crime Playlist

We’ve had discussions here about music – whether we listen when we write, what we listen to, and, most recently from JD, the hassle of obtaining permission rights for lyrics.  But I recently thought about music from a new perspective last week when I had a group of my criminal law students to our apartment for a pizza party.  For the evening’s music, I compiled a playlist of crime-related songs.

The idea started as a joke in class.  To study accomplice liability, our class discusses State v. Ochoa, a case in which defendants are convicted as accomplices for the murder of a sheriff because they assaulted a deputy at the scene who might otherwise have come to the sheriff’s rescue.  After the first couple mentions of the man who “shot the sheriff,” I noticed a few snickers.  Better to clear the air, I figured.  “How many of you found yourself singing I Shot the Sheriff when reading this case?”*  Lots of hands.  “Bob Marley or Eric Clapton?”  More Marley than Clapton.  Good students, I thought.  “Might have to add that to the pizza party playlist.”

So I did.  And then my OCD kicked in and I couldn’t stop.  Who knew there were so many songs related to crime?  Okay, so maybe the connection’s a little loose on some of these, but whatevs.  It was a fun project.  Here’s the list.

  1. Smooth Criminal – Alien Ant Farm (Michael Jackson works too.)
  2. Gimme Shelter  – Patti Smith (ditto, Stones.  I like covers.)
  3. Rehab  – Amy Winehouse     
  4. Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash  
  5. Chain Of Fools  – Aretha Franklin    
  6. Panic – The Smiths  
  7. 99 Problems – Jay-Z
  8. Psycho Killer – Talking Heads  
  9. One Way Or Another – Blondie 
  10. Wanted Dead Or Alive – Bon Jovi
  11. I Fought The Law – The Clash
  12. Human Nature – Michael Jackson  
  13. Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
  14. I Confess – The English Beat  
  15. Criminal – Fiona Apple
  16. Born to Run – Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Save your noise, Springsteen fans.  I said I like covers.)  
  17. I Shot the Sheriff – Bob Marley (Even I won’t take Clapton over Marley.)
  18. Lust For Life – Iggy Pop (a lyrical stretch, I know, but it’s Iggy.)
  19. Town Called Malice – The Jam   
  20. When You Were Young – The Killers
  21. Let’s Go Crazy – Prince   
  22. F*** the Police – NWA    
  23. I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones 
  24. Jailhouse – Sublime          
  25. Shoplifters Of The World Unite – The Smiths
  26. Ball And Chain- Social Distortion  
  27. 187um – Dr. Dre
  28. Burning Down The House – Talking Heads
  29. Call Me – Blondie
  30. She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult
  31. I’m Your Villain – Franz Ferdinand

So, which are your favorites?  What have I missed?  What other songs should be here based on titles, lyrics, or band names?

*Needless to say, my law school classes are not like those you may have seen in Paper Chase or Legally Blonde.

The Faces of Evil

by Alafair Burke

Thanks to some truly memorable writing by a guy called Thomas Harris, and some wicked good acting by a dude called Anthony Hopkins, many of us picture this guy when we think “serial killer.”

Or if we take our models from the real world, we might conjure up images of these fellows.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The paradigmatic “serial killer,” as we tend to use that term, is, by definition, both evil and genius.  We know he is evil because he not only takes life, but does so repeatedly and often methodically.  We know he must be genius because he is able to get away with his acts, repeatedly and methodically.  Ted Bundy convinced grown women to get in a car with him.  Charles Manson controlled his own cult.  The Zodiac Killer was never caught.  And Hannibal Lecter?  Well, he managed to outwit even Clarice Starling.  How wiley is that?

But I spent some time last week thinking about our fascination with the particular type of romanticized evil epitomized by the pop culture figure of the serial killer.  My thoughts were first sparked by this season’s insanely delicious performance by John Lithgow on Dexter, based on the groundbreaking novels by Jeff Lindsay.  Dexter himself was a terrific twist on the usual serial killer depiction: He only kills people who deserve it.  And, in some ways, the killer portrayed by Lithgow checks off all the usual boxes: methodical, intelligent, manipulative – check, check, and check.

Except … he’s also married.  And he sings loudly and earnestly at church.  And he wears goofy shirts.  And he gets angry when a new acquaintance lingers too long near his dead sister’s ashes.  And he totally wigs out when he hits a deer with his creepy kidnapper van.  And he looks like this.


Not wiley.  Not genius.  Just a little off.  And kind of dorky.
    
I was also thinking about serial killers when I dusted off an old war story for my criminal law students this week.  When I was a young Deputy District Attorney in Portland, I prosecuted a guy called Sebastian Shaw.  The facts?  He threw an onion at his sister with such force that it, in her words to the police, “exploded.”  (No offense to my siblings, but you all did way worse to me, and I never called the cops.)  

In all honesty, I might have only pushed the necessary papers on the case had it not been for persistent phone calls from a friend of the defendant’s family (coincidentally, a writer you’ve probably heard of).  She warned me and anyone who would listen that Shaw was dangerous.  We had to do something.  To the best of my recollection, Shaw was convicted of assault and received what was probably a typical sentence for the crime of injuring another person.    

I moved on to the next case (or hundreds) and never thought of it again until the First Assistant called several months later, asking for information about a guy called Sebastian Shaw.  “Oh yeah,” I said, “the exploding onion case.”  I could tell from the First Assistant’s response that my levity was misplaced.  (I know.  It probably still is.)

You see, Shaw had been stopped by police in a car that happened to have the following items in the trunk:  a blindfold, plastic zip ties, duct tape, mace, a knife, a lead weight in the end of a sock, ski masks, latex gloves, and pornographic magazines.  That’s all the police needed to know to conclude that Shaw was up to no good.  But it wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Fortunately, Shaw smoked.  And littered.  After he flicked a cigarette butt to the ground outside a grocery store, police linked him through DNA evidence to a rape and two unsolved murders.  The last time I checked, Shaw claimed to have killed ten or fifteen people, and law enforcement continued to connect him to bodies.   

It wasn’t until after he’d been identified as a serial rapist and murderer that all the stories started to come together.  The threat to his roommate’s life during an argument about the dishes.  The eerie statements that had gotten him suspended from his cable company job.  The outburst at his co-workers when he was a security guard.  And don’t forget about the exploding onion.

All that time, all those stories.  Apparently his family suspected something was deeply wrong.  But I imagine that, to the people who had only superficial encounters with him, Sebastian Shaw seemed sad.  Bizarre.  Pathetic.  Lonely.  A loser.  

Not evil.  Not wiley.  Not genius.

Now police in Cleveland have found eleven bodies in the home of this man, who had lived with his stepmother and did not drive.  Sad.  Pathetic.  Not wiley or genius.

All of these stories were bouncing against each other in the pinball machine I call my brain when I asked my Facebook pals what I should blog about.  I got some great suggestions that I may use later, but one stood out when my friend, Steve, said, “How about the banality of evil?” 

It shouldn’t have taken Steve’s suggestion for me to tie John Lithgow to Sebastian Shaw to Anthony Sowell in Cleveland.  I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, terrified of a murderer who called himself BTK.  Bind.  Torture.  Kill.  Thirty years without capture.  Evil.  Wiley.  Genius.

But then they caught him because he was stupid enough to send police a CD-rom initialized with his full name.  In his job enforcing low-level code violations in his tiny little town, he was known to measure grass with a ruler.  Not wiley.  Not genius.  Just a sad loser.  But still evil to the core.

So if evil doesn’t usually come in a super-smart, fava-bean eating package, why are we so fascinated with the prevailing paradigm?  Maybe it’s simply because characters like Hannibal Lecter make for much better fiction than overweight landscaping police.  But I suspect our preferences run deeper.  We want to believe that evil is both recognizable and rare, not the nondescript guy in the next office.

If you’re fascinated by real-life serial killers, which ones fascinate you and why?  And, as a reader (and perhaps writer), how do you respond to fictional portrayals of evil?  Which ones stick with you?

Book Reviews, Served With a Healthy Side of Snark

by Alafair Burke

When writers say they don’t read book reviews, they’re usually referring to their own.  Not me.   Whether I should or not, I do read reviews of my own books.  I don’t, however, read book reviews generally.  I peruse the New York Times Sunday Book Review, as well as the book sections of the magazines to which I subscribe.  I also find myself really enjoying Huffington Post’s new book section.  But I wouldn’t say I make a point to have my finger on the pulse of critical response.

Perhaps the casualness of my book review browsing explains why I spotted a common thread among three reviews I happened to read last week.  My brow first furrowed when Entertainment Weekly panned Michael Connelly’s Nine Dragons as a novel that “read like it had been scribbled during a red-eye from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.”  Those were some hard words to handle, coming as they did from my pop-culture bible about my crime-writing God.  Apparently also for book blogger Sarah Weinman, who tweeted, “What bug crawled up [the reviewer’s] butt?”  Can’t we all just get along?

 

It turns out the reviewers were just firing up their keyboards.  The following Monday came Janet Maslin’s review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  Maslin treats Ehrenreich’s thesis as “the makings of a tight, incisive essay,” then dismisses the admittedly “short book” as still “padded with cheap shots, easy examples, research recycled from her earlier books and caustic reportorial stalking,” with a central point “that’s as obvious on this book’s last page as it was on the first.”

But Michiko Kakutani wasn’t going to let her colleague take the week’s prize for creative dissing.  Her review of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is so scathing I felt myself wincing with every new phrase.  Just a few?  “Tedious, overstuffed.”  “Insipid, cartoon version.”  “Sorely tries the reader’s patience.”  “The characters turns out to be an annoying and tiresome lot.”  And finally, “lame and unsatisfying.”

Yikes.

Don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t yet another writer railing against a bad review.  Nor is it a claim that reviewers should only review books they enjoy.  Nor is it a general indictment of the enterprise of reviewing.  Nor am I claiming that the above reviewers were inaccurate. 

Instead, I find myself asking questions: If a reviewer concludes that a book stinks, what is the appropriate tone for the resulting review?  Does the reviewer do enough by saying the book is (to their mind) bad, or does colorful condemnation help make the point?  Do scathing one-liners make for more effective — or at least more readable — reviews, or are they just unnecessary snark?

I ask because it seems to me the few bad reviews I read (hopefully not mine, fingers crossed) seem to be getting snarkier.  Maybe I’m wrong about that.  Like I said, I don’t scour book reviews, so my sample size is woefully unscientific.   And if you listen to Brad Meltzer, stinging reviews are nothing new.

But it would make sense if reviewers were getting meaner.  With newspapers struggling generally, and book reviews taking a disproportionate hit, reviewers and their editors might reason that readers would rather see blood shed on the page.  And if their main competitors are websites and blogs, well… let’s just say there’s no shortage of churlish comments online.

 

Author who read a bad review? Or reviewer who read a bad book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Are reviews getting snarkier?  Should they?  And, best of all, what are some of the harshest reviews you’ve ever read (or received)?

I’ll start.  (1) Maybe.  (2) Honestly not sure.  (I know, I’m very decisive today.)  (3) The Independent (UK) on my debut novel, Judgment Calls: “Does the name Burke ring any bells? Why, it’s James Lee’s daughter and she’s written a legal thriller about as thrilling as a trip to the dentist. Dull as ditchwater, in fact. She’s a former assistant DA in Portland, and if I was [sic] her, I’d have stuck to the day job. Me, I’ll stick to her daddy’s books.”  Nice.

Turning 40 and Missing Bouchercon

by Alafair Burke

This Friday is October 16, significant to many people, I’m sure, for a variety of reasons.  Odds being what they are, someone reading this is probably having an anniversary.  Or a birthday.  Or a new book published.

According to the handy dandy Interwebs, this Friday will mark a number of important historical events: the guillotining of Marie Antoinette in 1793, the births of Oscar Wilde and Eugene O’Neill, n 1854 and 1888, respectively, the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the launch of Ross Perot’s infomercial in 1992.

But I have my eye on this Friday for two reasons.  First, it’s the Friday of Bouchercon weekend.   There’s no shortage of terrific programming for the weekend, and Friday is chock full of good stuff:   2009 Anthony nominees for short story, like Sean Chercover and Jane Cleland, discuss their work; panels on setting, plotting, and noir (oh my!); talk of police procedurals, PI novels, series characters, and women in the genre; and, of course, Michael Koryta’s interview of guest of honor (and god of writing) Michael Connelly.

 So much for a photo with both Michaels at the same time

 

 

I think I just felt a tear roll down my right cheek.  Why?  Because I won’t be in Indianapolis.  Nope, no Bouchercon for me this year.  Why not?  Because the second reason I’ve been eyeballing the approach of October 16, 2009, is that it marks the fortieth anniversary of my birth.  I believe that makes it my fortieth birthday.


When I first realized last winter that Bouchercon fell on my birthday, I assumed I’d go.  Given the timing of the annual conference, I’ve had Bouchercon birthdays before.  I spent my 33rd at that memorable hotel in Las Vegas.  My editor took me off-site to see Tom Jones where I was not the only birthday girl, but was apparently the only one who held on to her lingerie.

But as early 2009 whizzed by and my travel plans went left unmade, I realized I was procrastinating for a reason.  I was trying to guess how I’d feel on the big day.  I was imagining my own future state of mind.  Stupid idea.  Speculating about the future is risky.  Understanding one’s current mood and its relationship to external factors is also imprecise.  Throwing the two together was…well, stupid.

Several months ago, past-me imagined future-me on October 16, 2009, and did not like what she saw:  Me wandering around alone at Bouchercon; sitting at my signing table, saying goodbye to the last person in my modest line as the crowd waiting to see the author next to me tried to mask its pity; sobbing into my martini at the bar as I realized I was officially half way to eighty, well over a third of the way to dead.

Bummer, huh?

Turns out past-me sucks at both remembering the past and predicting the future. 

As Bouchercon approaches, I find myself recalling not those past moments of humble pie (almost) every rookie writer experiences at Bouchercon — meandering around with a hotel map and a conference brochure as the seasoned vets exchange enthusiastic and kissy welcomes and hold court at the bar.  Instead, my mind is flooded with good memories of friendships formed and a love of writing shared: the Reacher Creature parties; that amazing panel in 2006 with Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman, and fellow Ratis, Cornelia Read and Zoe Sharp; the night these guys became my pals and we smiled like people in a toothpaste ad:

Bouchercon Chicago with Ben Rehder, James Born, and Barry Eisler And, although October 16 is still a few days off, it looks like past-me also got the future wrong. I don’t feel like crap about 40 after all.  I have an amazing husband and two kickass jobs.  I get love from good friends and my awesome dog.  I ran twenty-five miles last week, which I couldn’t do when I was 30.  Or 20.  And I live (and get to write about) the coolest city in the world.

If I cried at the Bouchercon bar about entering a fifth decade of this life I’ve got, I’d deserve to get my butt kicked.

Yet for reasons I had months ago, I won’t be in Indianapolis.  I’ll be having a different kind of fun: that husband and a few of the good friends I mentioned will be hanging out at a beach house, frying a turkey.  Today’s me predicts Friday-me will have a fabulous time.

But I’ll miss you folks who are going to Bouchercon.  I hope you’ll use the comments to remember the past or predict the future.  What are some of your favorite Bouchercon memories or most anticipated Bouchercon events?  Feel free to throw in some birthday chat as well.  You never know…Friday-me might need the encouragement after all. 

“I don’t usually like mysteries, but…”

by Alafair Burke

It’s that time of year – about six months out from the next publication date – when the conversations around Team Burke become dominated by marketing talk.  Some authors thrive on marketing, speaking openly about the “brand” they are trying to create, the value they place in their “product,” the placement of their product in the “market.”

I’m not one of those writers.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m no precious, anti-commerce, purist hippie.  I like four-star dining and fancy shoes way too much to try to pull off any kind of starving artist persona.  I’m all for the selling of the books.

My only complaint is that the rest of Team Burke – editor, publicist, marketing people, special online marketing people, the whole lot of them – look across the table at me as if I might be of some use.  As if I might actually know how to get my books into the hands of the people who might enjoy them.  As if I might know how to get those same people to then carry the book to a cash register.  As if I have the remotest clue about why anyone likes what she likes, or buys what she buys.

If I knew any of that, I’d be the genius who came up with this:

Or perhaps this:

Plenty of sales there to support a woman’s restaurant and shoe preferences, without having to type out all those pesky words.

I do try, though.  I make suggestions.  Some of them actually go into the plan.  Luckily, I enjoy some of the biggest parts of the plan – the touring, the facebooking, the blogging.  In my academic life, I’m lucky if ten other academics read my writing, so talking with people who read my books is heaven as far as I’m concerned.

But, this time around, Team Burke has added a new layer to the usual plan: “We want to get 212 to people who don’t usually read crime fiction.”

Say what?

“So many people here love your books even though they don’t usually like mysteries or thrillers.”

Read that previous sentence again.  There are so many things wrong with that sentence, I don’t know where to start.

Okay, I’ll start here.

1.    Who the heck doesn’t like mysteries and thrillers?

Given that you’re reading this particular website, my guess is you’re not one of these people.   Well, whoever they are, I don’t know whether to loathe or pity them.  I guess it depends on whether they think they’re too good for the genre or just don’t know what they’re missing.

There’s no question, though, that these people exist.  My pilates trainer just told me that she loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even though she didn’t “usually like mysteries.” 

“You don’t usually like what?”

I’m sorry.  I don’t understand.

Which brings me to…

2.    WHY would anyone not like mysteries and thrillers?

To get some insight into this phenomenon, I did what anyone seeking to conduct serious empirical research would do: I Googled.  

An initial observation: The quantitative data support the claim that there are actually people who claim they don’t like crime fiction, as evidenced by the number of results for the following searches:

23,100 “don’t like thrillers”
667 “don’t like mysteries”
22,400 “don’t read mysteries”
6,190 “don’t read thrillers”

On the qualitative side, I did find some explanations for these dislikes in my casual perusal of the search results (okay, not very scientific – whatevs):

Too much violence and death
Too suspenseful
Too improbable
Too predictable
Not enough character development
Bad writing

Now, that first reason is defensible, I suppose.  If someone doesn’t like to think about the bad things that happen to people, well – first of all, they should never spend time with me.  And they might justifiably stay away from the mystery shelves.  

The second one?  I won’t even pretend to understand.

“The suspense is making my eyes wide!”

And the rest?  They strike me as complaints that there’s too many bad books in the genre.  But there are bad books in all genres.  There are bad books pawned off as so-called “literary” fiction.  There are bad books.  Don’t read them.  Read good ones instead.

3.    Now here’s where it gets interesting: Why does a person who doesn’t usually read mysteries or thrillers suddenly decide to like a mystery or thriller?

Back to the Google data:
12,300 “don’t usually like mysteries”
38,500 “don’t usually read mysteries”
22,700 “don’t usually read thrillers”
2,040 “don’t usually like thrillers”

And almost always, these phrases are followed by the word “but:”

“but this one kept me on the edge of my seat.”  I’m sorry, but if you want your books to put you on the edge of your seat, we’re your people. 

“but this book was so warped, convoluted, I just couldn’t help but be entranced.”  Um…warped and convoluted?  We are totally your people.  (P.S. Kudos, Christopher Rice. That’s a review to be proud of!)  

Here are some more typical buts (shame on you if you just snickered): but this one was very entertaining, but this book is awesome, but this one is killer, but I absolutely love this one. 

Do you see a trend?  Basically, people don’t usually like crime fiction, but then sometimes they suddenly like crime fiction.  And if you think all these “buts” are for Michael Chabon and Stieg Larsson, you’ve got another thing coming.  People who think they don’t like crime fiction like Jonathon Kellerman, Michael Connelly, Alexander McCall Smith, and James Patterson.  That’s some pretty genre-y genre fiction (and I mean that in the very best way as a person who loves the genre).

4.    And, on the more personal side, why does a person who doesn’t usually like mysteries or thrillers like my books?  

As I understand it, my new fans at the publishing house are young people living their lives in Manhattan, just like the characters in my Ellie Hatcher series.  The books reflect their reality.  The characters sound like them, watch the same TV shows, and share the same worries.  

That’s all well and good, but these new readers of mine got the book for free from their employer.  If they saw it on the mystery table at Barnes & Noble, would they even pick it up, let alone buy it?   

5.  Now, my fellow ‘Ratis, here’s the question for group discussion: 

How do you get a person who thinks he or she “doesn’t like” mysteries and thrillers to give a book a try?  Must it be a personal recommendation from a friend: “Trust me, it’s good”?  Does it have to be the water-cooler book of the season?  Must it appeal to some other interest?

Why does the non-genre reader read a book in the genre?   

Behind the Velvet Rope

by Alafair Burke

This summer, former bouncer Darryl Littlejohn was sentenced to life without parole for the brutal murder of 24-year-old graduate student Imette St. Guillen.  Imposed consecutively to a separate 25-year-to-life sentence for kidnapping a Queens woman, the judgment guarantees that Littlejohn will never be free to victimize another woman again.  But behind the evolution of one criminal case, and even beyond the life of the beautiful young woman whose face temporarily emblazoned the front pages of newspapers and the sides of light poles in New York City, is a cautionary tale for all women.

Today’s women have learned lessons from the crime victims of previous decades.  No hitchhiking.  No late-night shortcuts through darkened alleys.  Check the peephole if you’re going to open the front door.  Walk through the parking lot with alarm key in hand.  And no rides from strangers, even ones as handsome as Ted Bundy.

But then that photograph of another missing woman reminds us: Despite the usual precautions, sometimes we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  Imette St. Guillen found herself in a predator’s path when closing time came at the Falls Bar, an upscale Soho tavern with brown leather banquettes, dark wood accents, and a menu featuring Kobe-beef and lobster burgers.  She’d celebrated her birthday with a girlfriend, but when her friend headed home, she remained behind alone.

Soho’s Falls Bar, where Imette St. Guillen came across killer Darryl Littlejohn

Nine months earlier, eighteen-year-old Alabama high school student Natalee Holloway disappeared near the pristine white sand beaches of Aruba.  She’d been celebrating spring break with her classmates at Carlos’n Charlie’s, a Caribbean Vegas-Meets-Disney hotspot, before leaving alone with three young men she’d just met.  

Four months after St. Guillen’s murder, eighteen-year-old New Jersey student Jennifer Moore was abducted from the West Side Highway.  She’d been drinking with a friend at Guest House, a Chelsea club described by New York Magazine as an “intimate” and “posh boite,” where a patron sporting “sunglasses and stilettos (and exhibiting a good deal of flesh)” might “step out of a canary-yellow Lamborghini” and “snag a reserved table for bottle service.”  But Jennifer Moore had neither a Lamborghini nor a driver to meet her at the curb.  She was a passenger in her girlfriend’s illegally parked car, which the city first ticketed, then towed, and then refused to release to the girls because of their intoxication.  When her friend passed out at the impound lot, Moore walked off alone.  Her accused killer, drifter Draymond Coleman, still awaits trial three years later.

Guest House’s offers private bottle service. Grey Goose goes for $350.

Currently the search continues for missing 25-year-old Laura Garza, who was last seen leaving the club Marquee at 4 am on December 3 with a convicted sex offender named Michael Mele.  The New York Daily News described Marquee as “ritzy” and Mele as “flashy, often decked out in expensive clothes and driving a sports car.”  Prosecutors are considering indicting Mele for murder, even if Garza’s body is never found.

Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, and Pete Wentz have all been spotted at club Marquee

I can’t be the only one who sees a trend.  

In the opening scene of my novel, Angel’s Tip, Indiana college student Chelsea Hart is celebrating the final night of spring break at Pulse, a hot-ticket club in the Meatpacking District.  A few hours and several drinks later, her friends are ready to call it quits, but Chelsea stays behind to have one last drink.  Joggers find her body near the East River the next morning.

The media widely reported that Angel’s Tip was based on the murder of Imette St. Guillen.  However, that opening scene could have been based on any one of the same scenes I see repeating every weekend in my neighborhood in lower Manhattan: some young woman — dressed to kill, drunk out of her mind – splitting off from her friends.  The friends looking back with a worried expression.  The girl assuring them she’ll be fine.  

It’s easy for me now – married, in my late thirties – to shake my head with wisdom.  To dole out advice to my female students.  To write about this.

But I remember.  I remember being those girls.  Sometimes I was the one begging my friend to come home because I couldn’t hold myself upright anymore but couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her alone.  And sometimes I was the stumbling drunk, so sure I could look after myself, so certain the guy I’d just met was worth the late night.  

I was lucky.  So were most of my friends – not all of them, to be sure, but even those survived.  And then there are the women like Imette St. Guillen, Jennifer Moore, and most likely Natalee Holloway and Laura Garza, who don’t.

I want to be absolutely clear here.  This isn’t about blame.  No one asks to be victimized, and women don’t bring this onto themselves.  This summer’s murder of Eridania Rodriguez demonstrates that we can only control so much.  The working mother disappeared not from an A-list nightclub, but from the eighth floor of the secured skyscraper she was cleaning.  Her body was found in an air duct four floors up.  An elevator operator has been charged with her murder.  Predators exist.  Like bolts of lightning, they will occasionally strike.

But although lightning may be hard to predict, it is not random.  Neither is crime.  Why does a generation of women who lock their doors, check peepholes, and carry alarm keys continue to wander off alone at closing time?

Because we feel safe.  In a darkened alley or an empty parking lot, we know to put our guard up.  We know to be street smart.  But our preferred nightlife spots change all that.  The red velvet rope.  The discerning doorman perusing the waiting crowd, selecting those fortunate enough to enter.  The so-called VIP lounges that provide yet another layer to the selection process.  The eighteen-dollar martinis.  Bottle service for the truly pampered.  The alcohol allows us to fall further into the fantasy.  And in the fantasy, everyone in the club is “in the club” – beautiful, upscale, safe.  

But that bouncer doing the screening could be Darryl Littlejohn.  The cute guy you’re dancing with could be Michael Mele.  The man who helps you hail a cab at 4 am could be Draymond Coleman.    

If you’re like me — if you’re a woman who has ever let her guard down — don’t wait until the next missing woman’s photograph is on the front page to feel lucky.   And the next time you go out, don’t press your luck.  Drink in moderation.  Stay with your friends.  And don’t fall for the hype.

How the Internet Completed Me

by Alafair Burke

Last week brought the start of law school classes. Today marks my inaugural post as a blogger for Murderati. And last month my sister told me I’m the most confident person she knows. What ties those seemingly unrelated events together is my relationship – at first reluctant and seemingly fleeting, now embraced and habitual – to the Internet.

Google “Alafair Burke.” Go ahead. I do.*

Among the first ten or so entries, I suspect you’ll find the following: My official author website, my faculty biography on the Hofstra Law School website, my HarperCollins author page, a Wikipedia entry, and either my MySpace or Facebook page.

A perusal of those sites would bring a tremendous amount of information about me. Some of it’s pretty basic: where I grew up (Wichita), my folks (James Lee and Pearl), the education background (Reed College, Stanford Law School), my work experience (clerk for the Ninth Circuit, prosecutor, blink-of-an-eye law firm stint, now law professor), the bibliography (five novels, one short story, a bunch of law review articles).

The biographical details also get more personal: the romantic situation (husband: Sean), the dependents (French bulldog: Duffer), even the age that I swore in my twenties I would eventually lie about (39. Really.).

And the personal goes beyond mere biographical facts. There are the photos — not just the posed headshots for the backs of book jackets, but the Facebook scrapbooks: me schlepping my Fodors on my first trip to Italy; me as a living, breathing 1980’s time capsule back in Wichita; me on a boat in a life vest, or perhaps it’s me as a bright yellow Michelin man.

There are also the Facebook wall updates, “tweets,” and author interviews that depict something resembling an actual life. Restaurants frequented. Miles run. Trips taken. Shows watched. Music downloaded. Diets failed.

So what does any of this have to do with the fact that I woke up this morning thinking there was some link between the start of classes, my first post on Murderati, and my sister’s surprising observation about confidence?** Because, prior to my leap onto the World Wide Web, I had more personalities than Sybil on a bender.

Compared to most people, we moved around a lot as kids. Then I went to college in a city and at a school where I knew no one. Same again for law school. I clerked for a liberal judge then went directly to a prosecutor’s office. I went from Birkenstock-infected Portland, Oregon to blue collar Buffalo.*** I spent my days in a law school classroom and my nights (and sometimes early mornings) as a new New Yorker checking out bars I’d seen on Sex and the City.

And somewhere along the line, I got used to adapting. I talked theory with my academic friends. I talked cases with the lawyers. I talked favorite TV shows and the neuroticism it takes to write with my fellow crime writers. I wore frumpy suits in the classroom, fashion-victim wardrobe experiments for SoHo. You get the drift. I unconsciously tailored different parts of my personality to share with the diverse people who made up my daily world.

So imagine my conundrum when the marketing forces of the publishing world pushed me toward an online presence. At first it was just the author website, with the basic biography and a few book tour pictures. Then it was a reader message board, where I slowly found myself responding to my new online friends with personal messages, out there in the virtual world for all to see.

Then, when I published Dead Connection (about a serial killer who finds his victims online), I knew it was time for MySpace and Facebook. I worried. A lot. My peers could see this. My students would read this. OMG, as the young people say.

I began with trepidation, posting initially only about my books. But then writer friends found me, striking up public conversations about not only writing, but also vacation spots, favorite city hang-outs, and dog shenanigans. Then came the long-lost friends from high school with pictures that could have stayed lost longer. There were also the academics, even a couple whose Kingsfield-ian personas are so well honed I never would have imagined they watched Arrested Development or read US Weekly. Suddenly all my audiences were in one place, getting to know the parts of me I had unknowingly kept from them.

I know some writers who have dealt with the online world by creating a separate writer persona. They purport to put themselves out there, but the self that’s out there isn’t really them.

Others have just said no. (I’d list them here, but I can’t find them online.)

But I eventually took the leap. At first it was accidental. An esteemed professor on the west coast messaged me on Facebook about a post I’d written about The Shield. I realized I had lost all control over my professorial image, but, amazingly, nothing happened. They didn’t revoke my faculty ID card. My students didn’t demand a tuition refund. My law review articles still got published. And I was still the same person.

I no longer try to wear different hats for different audiences. I write crime fiction. I write law review articles about prosecutorial power and criminal defenses. I love my husband and dog. I’m fascinated by pop culture. I blog, not just about my books, but whatever I find interesting.

I also hate when authors quote themselves, so I’ll quote fictional prosecutor Samantha Kincaid instead:

“That’s why I’ve always felt so home with Chuck (boyfriend-type-person). He got me. He could take the traits that other people see as so inconsistent and understand that they make me who I am. I eat like a pig, but I run thirty miles a week. I despise criminals, but I call myself a liberal. I’m smart as hell, but I love TV. And I hate the beauty myth, but I also want good hair. To Chuck, it somehow all made sense, so I never felt like I was faking anything.”

I’m almost forty years old. I’m a serious academic (or at least an academic) even though I read Entertainment Weekly. I’m snarky as hell but really am a nice person.  And I write some pretty entertaining books despite a fondness for footnotes and big words.  I think I’ve earned the right not to fake anything.

So classes started last week. My new students might read this, my first post on Murderati. And I’m all right with that. Because I’m the most confident person my sister says she knows.

But I wasn’t always like this. The Internet made me this way, despite my own instincts. Am I alone in this online transformation?  What has your experience been with that vast worldwide web?

I look forward to putting myself even further out there, here on Murderati.  In the meantime, hope to see you online, here, here, and/or here.

*Any writer who maintains that he or she does not Google himself or herself should be viewed with great distrust, because good writing requires honesty, and said writer is lying. This particular author is unabashedly honest and therefore admits a propensity for self-googling that is probably diagnosable.

** I still have not fully resolved whether I should construe my sister’s observation as stunning praise or a stinging rebuke. For now, I have opted for the former, giving us both the benefit of the doubt.

*** Long story. Details are findable (of course) on the Internet.

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