Category Archives: Alafair Burke

“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.