Category Archives: Alafair Burke

The Sickness Within

by Alafair Burke

I’m dark.  My guess is we’re all a little dark at Murderati.  I teach, study, and write about crime.  All crime, all the time.  So, yeah, I’m a little dark.

But every once in a while, I read words that I placed on a page and think to myself, “Damn, that’s sort of sick.”

I remember sitting in my office a few years ago, knowing that I needed to finish the chapter I was working on before I could join my husband and his Army friend for Friday night festivities.  I don’t know whether it was the momentum of the scene or the promise of a cocktail, but I hammered out the words as quickly as I could type them.  Suddenly the bad guy was doing something I had no idea he was going to do.  And I was describing it.  (No spoilers here, but I’m referring to the big, explosive confrontation near the end of my fifth novel, Angel’s Tip.)

I walked into the living room and threw my hands in the air.  “Finished!  Let Friday night begin!”  As the husband shook my martini, his friend asked, “What were you writing?”

I summed up the scene in a single, bluntly worded sentence. 

My husband’s friend — did I mention they knew each other from the Army? — looked at my husband, then looked at me, and then said, “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”  That’s right, y’all, I managed to freak out a West Point graduate who has spent the last twenty-one years in the military.  Hollah!

 I have no idea why this puppy doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” but his obliviousness makes him all the more awesome.

Our friend asked where the idea had come from.  I truly had no clue.

That kind of “Wow, I’m sort of sick” moment has happened to me only once in writing seven and a half novels.  Interestingly, though, I’m two for two on short stories.

In 2008, I wrote a short story called Winning (available here), about a husband’s reaction to the rape of his police officer wife.  My own editor said, “I had no idea you were so dark.”

[An aside: The title “Winning” alludes to gendered responses to violence, where men think “winning” means beating down an opponent, and women think “winning” is survival.  Please note that I wrote and titled the aforementioned story prior to this man’s conversion of the word to mean its exact opposite:

End of aside.]

Earlier this month, I turned in a short story for an upcoming Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child.  The book is called “Dark Justice” and features tales of vigilantism.  The story took me only a few days to write, but I find myself still thinking about it, wondering how in the world I came up with some of the story’s images. 

I wonder not only where the sickness comes from, but also why I seem more able to explore it in short fiction.  Maybe living a full year with those kinds of thoughts would simply be too much to handle.  Or maybe at a subconscious level I worry about my audience, realizing that very few readers want an entire novel filled with that kind of darkness.  A short story is a low-risk, short-term way to purge some of the crazier voices that are pulling at the corners of my mind.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  What’s the sickest thing you’ve ever read?  How sick is too sick?  Are you ever surprised, as either a reader or a writer, by the darkness of the books that you enjoy or write? And what is it about a short story that seems to draw out the sickness within?

P.S. A little bit of BSP this morning.  One of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, was kind enough to write a substantive review of my upcoming book, LONG GONE, for Amazon.  Because he’s cool, the review’s cool, with Frank Sinatra references and comparisons to watchmaking.  You can read the review (and learn more about LONG GONE) here.


Because Free is a Very Good Price!

by Alafair Burke

I’m not a salesperson.  I don’t even like to think about business or money.  If I did, I would have stayed at a law firm and pulled in a lot of dough.

I love to read.  I love to write.  I love to talk to readers about the books I’ve written.   But I also appreciate the absolutely true fact that it is only because there is a “business” side to the business that I am in the enviable position to do what I love.

These days writers are unavoidably pulled into the sales and marketing of their books.  Some writers enjoy it.  I once heard a writer talk about his drive to “move units.”


I also know writers on the other end of the spectrum who resolutely refuse to think about anything other than the writing of the books.  I confess that I find this view tempting.  Unfortunately, that “strategy” often leads to this:

So what’s a writer like me — neither diva nor salesperson — to do?

I thank my readers — a lot — because they are the ones who give me a career.

I truly believe that word of mouth is the most effective advertising.  I still believe that readership can grow incrementally.  In a business that increasingly searches for the one-time out-of-the-gate phenom, I want a career like Michael Connelly’s, Harlan Coben’s, Lee Child’s, or Laura Lippman’s — each book getting better and better over the course of years and decades. 

That kind of career is built on support from readers.  No, not just support.  Love.  Like, serious wind-beneath-my-wings love. Like, this cat and this dog kind of love:

Last year, to thank my most loyal, loving readers for early support, I promised a “mystery gift” to readers who pre-ordered my novel, 212.  The gift was a 212 keychain and a signed bookplate — not much, but a small token of gratitude.  My awesome readers not only sent the book into the top 100 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but also earned us a little shout-out in a Wall Street Journal article about author giveaways.

The article was headlined, “How Authors Move Their Own Merchandise” and featured authors who were “becoming more and more involved in the nitty-gritty of moving the merch.”  One writer (not me, thank God) was described as “approximately as shy as a Kardashian,” and said, “I have four children to feed. I wish I had the luxury of not being tacky.” Another (again, not me) had a book reading at a sex toy shop.

Hey, wait a second!  My cute little keychains were a personalized and organic way to say thank you.  Tacky?  Nitty gritty of moving the merch?

Suddenly I felt like Tom Peterson, an electronics salesman who used to run TV ads in Portland, boasting “Free is a very good price!”

Well, it’s about three months before the launch of my new novel, LONG GONE.* 

Once again, I’m trying to find a way to thank my awesome readers, but my publisher and I are really struggling with the best way to do it.

Are pre-order incentives “tacky?”  Are they so common now that the book gets lost in the noise?  Or do readers enjoy being invested in the early momentum?  Are they just for loyal readers, or do new readers jump in too?

And what’s better, a little giveaway or a raffle?  Would you rather have something small like a signed book plate, or a chance to win something big?  And what should the something big be?  Something generic but expensive, like an iPad?  Or something personal, like dinner together at Boucheron?

And because this blog post is on the topic of raffles and give-aways, your thoughts on the lofty questions above will enter you into a raffle for a signed copy of 212.  Act now, and I’ll throw in a 212 keychain!  “Free is a very good price!”

*Tom Peterson would be ashamed if I mentioned his name in this blog post without also including the following information:  You can pre-order your copy of LONG GONE here.

With a Shiver in My Bones Just Thinking About the Weather

by Alafair Burke

Today I woke up with “Like the Weather” by 10,000 Maniacs in my head.

Why?  Well, I always have some song in my head, and better the sweet crooning of Natalie Merchant that yesterday’s brain virus, which was this:

(Oh, that was kind of mean, wasn’t it?  You’re going to be humming that all day, aren’t you?  Bieber Fever…crazy contagious, yo.)

Sorry.  Okay, back to “Like the Weather.”  I haven’t thought about that song for at least fifteen years, but, because I have the peculiar (and so far completely unmarketable) ability to identify an 80’s song to fit any situation, I found myself thinking about those lyrics this morning.

The color of the sky as far as I can see is coal grey.
Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again.
With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.
A quiver in my lips as if I might cry.

Well by the force of will my lungs are filled and so I breathe.
Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave.
Shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.
Quiver in my voice as I cry,
“What a cold and rainy day. Where on earth is the sun hidaway.”

Seriously: Where on earth IS the sun hidaway?

I try my best not to whine. I realize I’m one lucky chick with one privileged life.  But damn if Mother Nature ain’t on my sh*t list these days.

Not since growing up in Kansas, where folks would gather on the porch with transistor radios until the tornado warnings sent them scurrying to the basement, have I spent so much time as this winter thinking about the weather.  Cold.  Grey.  Snow.  Slush.  Rain. Repeat.  Pretty soon it will be frogs, then hail mixed with fire, and eventually zombies will be involved. 

I hate this winter’s weather so much I’m trying to figure out how to kill it in my next book.

Because here’s the thing: Like that cute little barefoot Natalie Merchant, I am affected by the weather.  I shouldn’t be.  My job is indoors.  Most of my favorite city activities are indoors.  In theory, I don’t even need to go outside.

But somehow my body knows that it’s trecherous out there.  And when it’s trecherous, I get lazy.  I made myself go to the gym today, but my legs were moving halftime on the treadmill as if to say, “What do you expect, woman?  It’s raining out there.”

I can’t even write.  My brain’s a little foggy.  My eyelids are sort of droopy.  Somehow the sound of rubber tires on those wet Manhattan streets is so loud I can’t concentrate.  It’s so dark outside I can’t get enough light.  At least that’s how it feels.

But give me a dry, sunny day, and I’m the Energizer Bunny on crystal meth.  I’ll jump from bed, do a double work-out, and jam on my laptop for a couple or few thousand words.  I’ll tidy the apartment, run my errands, open my mail, and pay my bills.  I’ll take a shower and brush my hair.  I’ll even smile at strangers without scaring them.

These days… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing you can’t see me or my apartment right now.  Pretty sights, neither.

I gather I’m not alone in my primal connection to the weather.  Just ask Natalie Merchant. 

But despite old song lyrics and that urban legend about suicide rates in Seattle, I know some people who hate the sun and love the rain.  People who are energized by snow.  People who love clouds.  Maybe it’s just how we are wired. 

What’s your story?  Are you affected by the climate, or are you able to tune it out?  If you are affected, which weather reports float your boat, and which send you back into bed?

If you liked this post, please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and/or my newsletter.  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to cheer myself up without Mother Nature’s help.  I was like, baby, baby, baby no… baby, baby, baby…

Love and Music

by Alafair Burke

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.  Even though this is a pretty stupid holiday — originally linked to romance through a tale of birds hooking up, now propogated to sell greeting cards — I still sort of like it.  Remember those little paper cards we used to exchange in grade school?

Those adorable but culinarily-suspect heartshaped Necco candies?

Those overpriced dinners at overbooked restaurants?  Oh, wait, that’s another entry on the con side of the ledger.

Anyway, I have enough fondness for Valentine’s Day that I wanted my blog to have some connection to the concept of overwhelming swooniness that we’re all supposed to feel this day.  The only problem is that talking about love sort of makes me want to hurl.  Don’t get me wrong.  I feel love.  I still get that little hiccup in my chest when I look at my husband when he doesn’t know I’m watching him.  But somehow I suspect most of you don’t want to read an entire blog post filled with sentences like that last one.  Ick, that’s sweeter than those Necco wafers.

A writer’s cynicism of the words we typically use to explain love might strike some as odd, but I think it stems from too many greeting cards, bad romance scenes, and sappy lyrics.  Love pulls you up weightless into the fluffy white clouds, turns you inside out, and then throws you on your ass, but in a good way.  Love is also so subjective that the previous sentence might not mean anything to anyone besides me.

I was trying to identify any other experience that feels like being in love.  The closest I came was that feeling you (or at least, I) get when in the presence of a truly magical musical moment.  I don’t simply mean ones reaction to a sappy love song (though this one happens to be a fave).

Every once in a while, I am so pulled in by musical talent, I can’t move.  I don’t want to breath, just in case the air moving into my lungs interferes with the magesty of that moment.  I want to stop time to linger in the perfection.  I want to be able to experience it again and again.

Have you ever had that feeling? I hope for your sake the answer is yes.

I suppose it would be impressive to say these moments came during O Patria Mia from the Verdi’s Aida.  But that’s not how I roll.  (In fact, I don’t know what O Patria Mia is.  I just found it on Google.)

My most recent love and music moment came last week when I saw Prince in concert at Madison Square Garden.  His incredible talent, the memories of listening to that music in high school, and my happiness about seeing him in New York with a good friend all culminated in one of those all-out weepy, goose-bumpy moments.  (Even though bootleg video won’t do the performance justice, I went hunting for a clip, which will probably be pulled by his copyright lawyers by the time you read this.)


Another performance that had me swooning was Fantasia’s tribute to Patti LaBelle.  I know.  It sounds as bad as a puppy on a unicorn, but, damn, that woman can sing.  And somehow through all those notes, she manages to convey the utter respect and love she has for Miss Patti.  Check them out and then try to tell me you don’t feel it.  (Make sure to hold out for the mutual lovefest starting at 2:04 and Patti’s awesome move at 3:39.)

And don’t forget Mary J Blige’s emotional performance of No More Drama at the 2002 Grammy Awards, which brought both the singer and members of the audience to tears. 

Maybe I’m totally out there, but the feeling I get watching a singer put every part of himself or herself into a single experience makes me feel … love(ish). 

So, here are my questions for the day:

1) Your verdict on Valentine’s Day: yay or nay?

2) Any musical performances that induce tears, chills, or paralysis?

Lessons From Vacation

by Alafair Burke

One More Day.  No, that’s not the title of a sequel to this novel, David Nicholls’ One Day, one of my 2010 favorites.

The phrase “one more day” has become something of a running joke between my husband and me, because every time we take a trip, I tend to say as we’re boarding the plane home, “We just need one more day.”

I was never much of a traveler.  My parents, both on academic schedules by then, would throw us in the car as kids and drive around all summer, but once I was on my own, I pretty much stuck to home, taking a trip or two per year, almost always to visit my siblings and/or parents.  I was thirty years old before I had a passport, and then it was only to attend a legal academic conference conveniently scheduled in Barbados.

Once I published my first novel in 2003, however, I started racking up those frequent flier miles.  If memory serves, I went to twenty cities or so for my debut novel.  My UK publisher brought me to London.  It’s not as if book promotion travel gives you any opportunity to know a city.  It’s just airports, hotels, cars, bookstores (yea!), and, if you’re lucky, a walk around the business district. 

Think this:

Not this:

Yet somewhere along that road, I turned into one of those people who likes to travel. I found myself wanting to linger in each city, yearning for time to acclimate to my new surroundings.

But my increasingly uttered “one more day” mantra has me wondering whether I not only like to travel, but need to.

I just opened my credit card bill to learn that in the last month, I booked five different flights, all to be taken before the end of April.  Those five upcoming trips don’t count a law-lecture gig in D.C., a book conference in North Carolina, or other short car-trips I’ll inevitably book on weekends.

I say inevitably because, damn, I’ve turned into one of those people — the type who is always thinking about the next trip.

And I’m not happy about that development.  There’s a thin line between adventurous and restless, and I fear I’ve crossed over it. 

So the question is ‘Why?’  I live in an amazing city.  I love and need the company of my husband and dog.  I like my apartment and my neighborhood and my cabinet full of cozy sweaters. I miss my array of health and beauty products when I’m living out of a carry-on bag with only a quart-size ziploc of stuff to make me purdy.

Some of my travel desires are undoubtedly healthy and legitimate.  I like nice weather. 


Whereas New York currently looks like this:

I enjoy the company of friends and family who live elsewhere.  It’s usually easier for me to go to them than vice versa.

One of my besties, Michael, and I golfing in Florida with another Florida Michael

Some of the Burkes at Burkeapalooza in Banff

But part of me realizes that this new desire to travel is distinctly related to the fact that I now work primarily from my apartment.  When I was still a practicing lawyer, I spent most of my waking hours at a desk or in court.  Once I walked into that courthouse, I cranked.  I was a machine.  I planned my work, and I worked my plan, all so I could leave at a reasonable hour.  I felt freedom hit me when I walked out that door.  Coming home was paradise.  At home, I could relax.  At home, I could turn off and let it all go.  Namaste, sistah.

Now?  Not so much.  Just down the hallway from my seemingly relaxing, minimalist living room is a cluttered office with a to-do stack that averages eight inches high.  In that office is a keyboard that I can always — always — have my hands on for just a few more minutes.  I can type just a few more words.  Finish just one more paragraph so I’ll be a tiny bit closer to the finish line.  In just one apartment, I have two computers, an iPad, and a phone, all constantly downloading emails from five different accounts — emails that if answered now, will not need to be answered later.  

Home is now the office, and the office is now home.  I no longer crank during the day.  I go to the gym.  I walk the dog.  I Facebook and Tweet way, way, way too much.  And I no longer turn it off at a reasonable hour.  I stay at my desk even after the husband happily declares he’s home.  I fiddle with my phone when we’re supposed to be watching a movie.  I take academic work to bed with me and read under the covers with a flashlight.

But, man, when I’m on vacation, I draw clear lines.  I’ll set a word goal on the plane.  The minute my laptop hits the mark, I slam that bad-boy shut and watch me some airplane TV.  I check emails but don’t answer them.  I read for pleasure.  I chill like a vill, baby.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love controlling my own schedule.  When I’m not being Professor Burke at the law school, I like working at home in my PJs with Duffer sitting at my feet.  I’m way, way spoiled.

But I’d like to take the best of my old practice days and pull them into my current teaching-slash-writing existence.  I want to return some urgency to my work day  and bring the chill back to my evenings and weekends.  Even though I’m the boss of me, I want the boss to set some kind of schedule, and I want the employee to stick to it.  In short, I want to draw some psychological lines between work time and me time.

Any suggestions?


The Golden Globes

by Alafair Burke

Some TV events have to be viewed with a group: the Super Bowl, big series finales, political debates, and award ceremonies.  Last night, I watched the Golden Globe Awards with a group of friends.

After several years of falling very behind on movies, I am somewhat in the loop this year, thanks to a Saturday morning matinee routine with fellow author and neighbor Jonathan Hayes.  As such, I can actually follow what’s going on this award season.

Here are a few (somewhat random) thoughts about last night’s winners, losers, and bystanders.

The Host: Anyone who’s seen Ricky Gervais in The (original) Office and the sublime Extras knows he is the master of delicious awkwardness.  His jokes at the expense of Scientology and the Tourist really kicked things off on the most uncomfortable note possible.  I have to admire someone who doesn’t mind being hated by his audience in the name of comedy.


Best supporting actor: Chris Colfer from GLEE.  Loved his speech; would’ve been even better if he sang it.  (More seriously, times really have changed.  Bravo, world!)

Best actor (drama): If only Brian Cranston and Michael C. Hall could have won as well, but I do love me some Steve Buscemi.

Best actor (comedy): I am the only person in America who has never seen Big Bang Theory, so I could only groan when some guy who looked like a baby Alien beat Alec Baldwin.

Best TV comedy: Glee won but should not have in light of its weak second season and tough competition from 30 Rock and Modern Family in this category.  (Big Bang Theory and The Big C were the other nominees.)

Best TV drama: The absence of Breaking Bad was a robbery.  Dexter, even after the slow start, probably still deserved to win in this category, but Boardwalk Empire can use the boost.


Best supporting actor: The Fighter is one of the only buzz-y films I haven’t seen yet, plus Christian Bale strikes me as a nutjob, so I have a hard time cheering for him.  I was pulling hard for Jeremy Renner, but THE TOWN seems destined to lose in every category, even though it was one of my favorite films of the year.  (I suspect it has something to do with Ben Affleck’s Gigl.)  I do love Melissa Leo, though, so was happy to see her win (but Helena Bonhan’s Carter “WTF” look at the end of Leo’s acceptance speech was absolutely classic – did you catch it?).

Best Animated Movie: Toy Story 3 was a no-brainer.  Such a wonderful story, my husband and I still can’t believe it was rated G.  It was one of the darkest movies of the year.

Best Actress (Comedy): I thought Julianne Moore was more deserving to be nominated for this award than Annette Bening, but was happy to see her recognized.  Robert Downey Jr. shoud get an award for best presenter.  So should Tina Fey and Steve Carell.

I love Matt Damon dearly, but his tribute to Robert DeNiro was almost as uncomfortable as the Ricky Gervais bits, and not intentionally.  And then Robert DeNiro turned up the discomfort volume to a 10.  Whatever happened to earnestness?

Best Actress (Drama) – Natalie Portman, no surprise.  Baby bump, an added bonus.  And best speech of the night.

Best Film (Comedy or Musical) – The Kids Are All Right, a bit of a slam dunk in light of the other nominees (Red, Burlesque (yes, really), Alice in Wonderland, and The Tourist)

Best Film (Drama):I went in feeling torn between The King’s Speech and The Social Network.  Both took potentially dry subjects and transformed them into gripping drama.  Ultimately, though, my fondness for The Social Network is primarily due to Aaron Sorkin’s fantastic screenplay (which did win – yea!), so I pulled for The King’s Speech. But when Social Network won, I defended it to the many critics in our room.  Best line of the year: “I’m 6’5″, 220, and there’s two of me.”

The (even more) wholly superficial:

Nicole Kidman – What has she done to her face to make herself look so much like Renee Zellweger?

Kelly green dresses- I lost count but I saw at least four just on the red carpet, including on Angelina Jolie (who seemed eerily clingy with Brad Pitt; I suspect tabloids will be conjecturing). 

Tina Fey – I’m amazed that she still manages to rock that nerdy-and-only-secretly-attractive persona even as she’s transformed herself into such a gorgeous superstar.

If mutliple marriages were legal, my husband would have to learn to be brother-husbands with James Franco, Mark Wahlberg, and Robert Downey Jr. (with drug testing).

(Most Of) The Other Awards:

Best Actress in TV drama – Katey Segal (Sons of Anarchy), over Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs), and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer).

Best Actress in TV comedy – Laura Linney (The Big C), over Toni Collette (United States of Tara), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Tina Fey (30 Rock), and Lea Michele (Glee).

Best Actor (film comedy) – Paul Giamatti (Barney’s Version), over Jake Gyllenhaal (Taylor Swift, I mean, Love and Other Drugs), Johnny Depp (times two), Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack – never heard of it).

Best Actor (drama): We had a generational divide in our group between Colin Firth and Jesse Eisenberg.  Colin Firth takes it (and was suprisingly funny)!

Best Director:  David Fincher (The Social Network), over Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Christopher Nolan (Inception), and David Russell (The Fighter).  Still no clue as to why TRUE GRIT was locked out of everything, because I think it was probably the best film of the year.

My apologies to our regular readers who are wholly uninterested in the Golden Globes.  We’ll be back to our regular programming tomorrow.  As for the rest of you, what were your most memorable moments of the Golden Globes or this year’s movie and TV seasons?

Writers and the New Year

by Alafair Burke

It’s another Monday, but today we kick off not just another week, but a new year in a new decade.  I thought it would be fun to check in with some writer friends to see what was on their minds as we said goodbye to 2010.

Lee Child, author of Worth Dying For:

Well, I kind of share Reacher’s super-pedantic nature and feel that every day is the start of a new year.  Calendar?  We don’t need no stinkin’ calendar!  And because I’m a generally contented guy I often feel … kind of gloomy about Jan 1, not because I’m down, but because usually the old year was so great I can’t see how the new one can be anything other than worse.  It usually isn’t, of course, which merely reinforces the cycle twelve months later.

I’ll be up late, probably watching NBC, and I’ll get into the moment.  But then I’ll go – 2011?? WTF?? How old am I now???  I’ll take the day off on the 1st, and then be back at work on the 2nd, laying bricks, trying to get the new book done.

Lisa Unger, author of Fragile

Since Ocean was born five years ago, we’ve spent our New Year’s Eve at home. When she entered the scene, focus really shifted to our domestic life.  The idea of partying as the clock strikes midnight has somewhat lost its appeal.  Last year we had a sitter scheduled. But Ocean got sick, so we stayed home with her and made marshmallow s’mores in our chiminea. Then Jeffrey and I celebrated with cosmos by the pool after she went to sleep. It was probably one of the best New Year’s celebrations ever.  This year, our long-time sitter is sort of on call.  She knows we might go out after Ocean goes to sleep for a little while, just to say we had a date night on New Year’s Eve.  But we’ll likely be home way before midnight.  I am married to my best friend, and our home is my favorite place in the world.  So it’s hard to imagine a better place to start the new year!  Chances are that’s where you’ll find us when the ball drops.

Karin Slaughter, author of Broken

Okay, well, I am pretty boring.  I always have a book due at the end of the year, so I spend the week between Christmas and New Years polishing the hell out of it so I can have it in my editors’ inboxes when they get back to work.  This is to say that I am so exhausted by the time the new year rolls around that I am generally in bed by ten.  Hey, it’ll still be next year when I get up.

Jonathon King, author of Midnight Guardians

My New Year’s will be grand celebrating in Ocean City, NJ and this year will start off with a new job at 8 am in the warm city of Pompano Beach, FL. Back to the world of paid employ, the writing may slow but never stop. Let us all be optimistic in 2011 and let a storm of reading break out everywhere!

Laura Lippman, author of The Girl in the Green Raincoat (to be published Jan. 18). And, fingers crossed, Unnamed Lippman #16, slated for August and now staggering toward completion.

For several years now, I’ve been doing the one-word resolution challenge at my website. This year, I chose “be,” recognizing that I am destined to fail. I think writers, by temperament, suck at being in the moment. They’re always rewriting the encounter that just happened (“I SHOULD have said”) or thinking about the work ahead. It’s a crazy way to be. Or not be, I guess.

But for personal reasons that you’ll understand even if I don’t want to broadcast them to Murderati readers — because I am trying very hard to have a hard, bright line between my personal and public lives — I’m trying to find some moments to be in the moments. It is, as the Zen masters promise, pretty great. Still, I suck at it.

And here’s a story I haven’t told: A few weeks before David Thompson died, I had a very brisk IM conversation with him via Facebook. I was working, I have so little margin for error in how I spend my time now that I am often forced to be brisk. Polite, but brisk. That turned out to be my last contact with him. I know I am supposed to turn this into an object lesson about how we never know and I should feel awful about the fact that I didn’t put down my work that morning and have a long, chatty conversation with David. Except, the great thing about David is that he totally understood that I was working and couldn’t do that. He understood what writers’ days were like, he understood why I was having trouble deciding whether I could come to the store in October. He was understanding personified. So instead of beating myself up for not stopping work that morning, I celebrate the fact that I knew someone like David.

I lost two friends and my father-in-law this year. I have never had a year of such extreme highs and lows, and I wonder if it has to be that way. And if it does have to be that way, what would I choose — a year of highs and lows, or a muddle through the middle? I honestly can’t decide. So I’m just going to try to be and roll with what comes. Almost every novel I write centers on one basic idea: Anything can happen to anyone at any time. I control nothing. Maybe that’s why I became a writer, where I get to enjoy the illusion of control over my pages and my characters.

Val McDermid, author of Trick of the Dark (UK) and most recently in the US, Fever of the Bone

I will be celebrating Hogmanay in traditional Scottish fashion. I’ll be up in my home town in Fife at my mother’s house, where we start the evening with one of the finest fish and chip suppers in the world. We’ll sit around and blether (that would be “chat” to you…) then when it gets close to midnight, we’ll charge our glasses — whisky for me and my mum, Diet Coke for the American teetotal wife, and apple juice for the kid — listen to the bells ring out on the TV, get tearful and drink our toast to the New Year. We’ll make some phone calls and texts to friends and family, then my mum and the kid head for bed while the wife and I go out to party. (She still feels bewildered at the notion of leaving the house to start partying after midnight. I guess they don’t do that in Michigan)

The party we go to is the same party I have been attending for 35 years. So, lots of auld acquaintance, whisky, Scottish country dancing and general catching up. We usually make it to bed these days by five or so. I guess I just don’t have it in me any more to stay up drinking whisky all night then end up at my friend Donald’s house to eat bacon and eggs around nine. Later that day we’ll visit friends and family. Next day is the traditional football (ie soccer) match. It’s always a local derby and we will sit in the director’s box (a very posh word for a little enclosure in the main stands, open to the elements and in line with the prevailing wind…) and freeze as we cheer on Raith Rovers to victory. It’s what we always do. On the rare occasions I’ve missed out (mostly because of seasonal illness) I’ve felt out of kilter all year. So I guess it’s a very important ritual for me.

(Ed. note: I love Val’s Scottish-isms but thank her kind soul for translations.  I grew up in Kansas!)

Jan Burke, author of The Messenger

On New Year’s Eve, we’ll happily spend time with friends. Then I become a curmudgeon, because the evening is a finalist for Least Favorite Holiday, one during which too many people try too hard to have fun — especially one of neighbors, who will probably make her annual attempt set someone’s roof on fire with a bottle rocket. I treat that evening — Amateur Drinkers’ Night — as if an announcement has gone out declaring that zombies will be migrating through my neighborhood: I stay inside after sundown.

Michael Koryta, author of The Cypress House

I have little excitement and less wit on New Year’s Day, it seems. Beyond making a resolution to get in better shape and then promptly falling asleep on the couch with a beer in my hand, my only consistent ritual is in totaling up the number of books read and words written. This year’s totals are disappointing: 76 books read versus the 103 I finished in 2009 (including a riveting thriller titled 212) and 228,037 words written. I topped 400,000 words in 2009, so that’s a big drop, and, since the vast majority of them end up on the cutting room floor, it’s a little alarming. I’ll try to find someone to blame immediately. Or maybe I should just get back to work…

(Ed. note: 228K words is disappointing? Good thing he snuck in that plug for my book, or I would really hate this guy.)

Jonathan Hayes, author of A Hard Death

My life – as a New Yorker, as a forensic pathologist, as a writer – always feels like it’s teetering on the brink of total collapse. I try to use New Year’s as an annual brake, as an opportunity to slow down, to actually concentrate on something. I like the tradition of a clean slate for the coming year, but my best resolutions have involved working on mindfulness, or developing a skill.
For example, when I was a contributing editor at Martha Stewart Living, I decided to work on my sense of smell. I kicked off the fresh year with a collection of beautiful essential oils, and a stack of books on scent and perfumery. The benefits – a more focused palate, a greater awareness of the olfactory world around me, a richer sensuality in my writing – have been long lasting.
This year, I’ve decided to learn about magic – street magic, not stage or fantasy magic. I’ve bought some decks of cards, a book and an instructional DVD; I expect I’ll be crap at it, but the discipline of reading, trying and practicing will be good for me. At one level, this is about becoming conscious of my hands again, about the mechanical pleasures of touch and proprioception. At another, it’s about trying to understand how illusions work – the art of managing expectation, of direction and misdirection. Mostly, though, it’s about sheer goofy fun.

Lawrence Block, author of A Drop of the Hard Stuff (coming in May) and 40 (Ed. note: Damn him!) backlist ebooks just out from Open Road.

Lynne and I will have a wonderful time New Year’s Eve, thanks to the Power of Diminished Expectations. A nice early dinner at the bistro around the corner, then a little time in front of the TV, capped by some network’s annual necrology, an irresistible combination of sweet sadness and delight at still being here. And so to bed.

Then the New Year begins with a January trip to Taipei and Beijing to meet readers and publishers, and from then on I’ve got a book to revise and another to write, and pub dates in May and September, and more ebooks coming out, including a pair of e-riginals in the spring, and I’ll tell you, I’ve got too much on my plate to leave room for any New Year’s resolutions. Except one, which I expect to keep, and commend to you all—to do as Warren Zevon advised, i.e. to enjoy every sandwich.

SJ Rozan, author of On the Line

I kicked off the new year as I have for over a decade now: a very long walk.  This year, 7 miles, through lower Manhattan.  I get up early, no matter when I went to bed, and just wander.  At first the streets are empty except for people still staggering home; then they come alive.  I do this every year, wherever I am.  (One of my favorite New Year’s Day walks was through Queens.)  It sort of reboots my head for the year to come.

Rosemary Harris, author of Dead Head

Like the Marx Brothers I’ll be kicking off the new year with a night at the opera – La Traviata at the Met, then a late dinner at Gabriel’s and a trek to the roof to watch the fireworks in Central Park. My husband claims that this year he’ll let me drag him to Marie’s Crisis Cafe to sing show tunes with the boys until the sun comes up but it hasn’t happened yet. Will keep you posted.

Megan Abbott, author of The End of Everything

I spent my youth determined to make every New Year’s Eve unforgettable–and while I remember none of them now, I’m sure they were memorable at the time. In more recent years, I’ve spent my New Year’s Eves hammering out resolutions–and while I remember none of them now, I’m sure I carried them out and they changed my life in critical ways. This year, I’ve decided to take the pressure off entirely. And I’m hoping what that means is not what I fear it means: trawling TruTV while savoring some fine Trader Joe’s prosecco. … Happy 2011!

Michael Connelly, author of The Reversal

I only have two real goals in the new year. Break a hundred on the golf course and write the best Harry Bosch book so far. I think at least one of these is attainable.

(Ed. note: I have seen this man golf, so the next Bosch must be a real doozie.)


And finally, moi:

At midnight, 1/1/11, my husband and I celebrated our anniversary at the same party where, five year earlier, we quietly exchanged vows and rings by ourselves in the basement at midnight.  We made it legal the next day with paperwork, a witness, and a “nondenominational minister” we found on the internet, but our non-wedding is still the thing we celebrate.  I rang in the new year grateful that my husband is still my best friend, thankful for having two pretty kickass jobs as a law professor and writer, and blessed with generous, talented friends who helped make this post special.

So tell us: How’d you ring in 2011?  And what author do you plan to read this year for the first time? 



Holiday Traditions

by Alafair Burke

As we approach Christmas, I’ve been thinking about holiday traditions.  Holidays are probably most exciting for children.  At least for children who celebrate Chirstmas, what could possibly be better than Santa Claus, a reindeer-powered sleigh, surprise toys, and pretty, shiny decorations everywhere? 

But maybe children love Christmas more than adults because they don’t have any responsibility for it.  As a child, Christmas just… happens.  Kids don’t have to schedule vacation.  School just stops.  They don’t have to buy the tree and haul the decorations out from storage.  They don’t have to mail Christmas cards or plan the holiday menu.  Stuff just magically appears.  Like Santa.

But for grown ups, Christmas could simply be a date on a calendar.  Particular for the self-employed, like writers, it could even be just another day at work. 

My husband and I don’t have children.  We both work.  We have our routines.  And it would be so easy — tempting even — to just skip Christmas.

But I refuse.  Maybe it’s the memories of Christmas as a child, but I still need my holiday.  I wish little elves (or maybe some less creepy type of minions) would show up magically under cover of night and make Christmas happen, but it takes effort — and not only from me, but the people around me.  And so many of the efforts we make during the holiday season come from tradition.  Sure, some of these traditions are collective — decorated trees, stockings, and egg nog.  But many are created by families over generations or develop instantaneously because of some memorable moment that we want to continue to recreate.

Here are some of my holiday traditions.

Tree Night

I know.  Most of us who celebrate Christmas have the usual tree.  But my husband and I skipped the tree business for a couple of years because floor space in Manhattan is precious, and setting up a tree is a pain in the ass.  But a few years ago, we had dinner at one of our favorite neighborhood joints, Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, and something about the season hit us.  The restaurant was decorated with traditional white lights and garland.  Diners carried shopping bags filled with wrapped presents.  There was talk of an early snow.  We passed a row of Christmas trees outside the Asian deli next door, and I knew I needed to have a tree at home again.  We paid our cash, each grabbed one end of the tree, and dragged that bad boy up University Drive to our apartment.  Each year since, we always go to the same restaurant and deli for tree night.


Christmas Tree 2010

It’s not the best looking tree, but it contains memories.  I bought those red velvet bows at a drug store in Portland when I was too poor in college to buy ornaments but desperately wanted a tree.  That angel came from a landscaping store in Buffalo and was too tacky to ignore.  That sad-looking plastic shrub on the cabinet served as our tree for those two years we skipped the real thing, so still gets a place in the apartment next to its larger, more authentic sister.

Turkey Frying

Before I met my husband, I prided myself on my turkey-roasting abilities.  I stuffed the bird.  I basted every 15 minutes.  I monitored the temperature like a worried mother.  But then I met a boy who was fascinated by turkey friers.  I discovered an electric version that could be used indoors or out.  I bought said boy a turkey frier, a turkey, and 13 Manhattan-grocery-store sized jars of peanut oil for Christmas.  Our apartment smelled like french fries for three days (not that that’s a bad thing).

That boy’s now my husband, and we now have fried turkey at Christmas. 

The Music

I have bad taste in music. Well, I don’t think it’s bad, but I’ve been told by enough people that it’s bad that I’ve come to accept that description.  My bad taste in music is also reflected in my choice of Christmas tunes.  I don’t listen to the classics.  They’re classics to me, mind you, but apparently not to others.  I love Christmas songs by pop stars.  The PretendersU2Mariah CareyMadonna. The Waitresses (even though I spent years thinking this song was by Bananarama.)  Elton JohnWhamHarry Connick, Jr.  John Cougar.  Mellencamp.  Whatever.  Bing Crosby & David Bowie (though I dare anyone to say this isn’t classic, enough so to be spoofed in this version). 

And every Christmas season, I listen to the Band Aid effort, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” until my husband’s ears bleed.

The Movies

Sure, I’m a sucker for TV’s the Grinch and Charlie Brown’s Christmas, but when it comes to movies, here again, I eschew the classics for more recent and less overtly Christmas-y fare. 

Home Alone. 

The Ref. 


I watch these movies every single year at least once.

And every year, I have to watch at least this scene from “Scrooge.”  Thank you very much, Albert Finney.

Texas Grapefruit

My paternal grandmother sent us all the same gift every year: a box of Texas grapefruit and chunk of Havarti cheese.  She passed away at the age of 101 two autumns ago, but to my surprise, that familiar yellow Pittman & Davis box arrived in the mail the following December and showed up again last week.  My parents have been placing the orders, and my hope is that decades from now my nieces and nephews will be exchanging Texas grapefruits and Havarti for reasons they aren’t even sure of.

Christmas Eve

We spend Christmas Eve with my sister-in-law’s family so we can wake up at the crack of dawn to the sound of our eager nieces running down the stairs to discover that Santa did, in fact, arrive.  We open presents in our jammies, and our dog, the Duffer, gets his own stocking.

Speaking of Duffer, he has also become a part of our Christmas card tradition.  We love those photo cards people send out of their children so decided to replicate the effort with our dog, the Duffer.   The pictures were originally intended to be ironic, but I confess to finding intense joy in them now.  This year, his photo is with PetCo Santa Claus.  Neither of them looks very happy to be there.

So what are your holiday traditions?

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

by Alafair Burke

Ah, the joys of holiday shopping.

It took only a few images like these for me to head straight to the safety of my desk for all my holiday shopping needs. Part of me does feel guilty about missing out on the special experience of holiday shopping in Manhattan, but, wow, it’s so warm and comfy in my apartment (and much closer to the refridgerator.) I love that the gifts get wrapped and mailed by invisible elves, complete with return instructions so my friends and family members don’t even have to tell me if they opt for another selection.

Ironically, though, holiday shopping online may not actually save time, at least not in my case.  In a store, I’m so eager to leave, I grab what I want and get the hell out while I’m still alive.  But online?  I browse and browse and browse, because the choices are infinite.  And so very, very odd.

I thought you might enjoy seeing a few of my favorite (mostly ridiculous) online finds this year.

10.        Blink Ketchup and Mustard Bottles

Your hotdog and hamburger eaters will love these.  The eyes close when you flip the bottle over!

9.      Fire Bell Alarm Clock    

From one of my favorite modern design stores in New York, this clock looks incredibly cool and is supposed to be as loud as a fire bell.

8.  Girly-Girl Roller Skates

Okay, that’s not really what they’re called, but that’s what I’ve dubbed them.  As a kid, I used to skate until my feet bled.  These make me want to spin in circles until I fall from dizziness.

7.    Bacon Soap

We all know someone who says everything is better with bacon.  (Come on, people, you know who you are!)  This soap, which looks and smells like bacon, will put that theory to the test.

6.  Toph Daddy Area Code T-shirts

A few of my readers were sweet enough to bring these to my attention after my most recent book, 212, was published.  I love my 212 shirt.  They also have ones for Boston, LA, and Chicago.

5. Edible Gingerbread Playhouse

Every year I love to peruse Neiman Marcus’s “Fantasy Gifts.”  Nothing will ever beat last year’s Cupcake Car, but this $15,000 edible gingerbread playhouse gives me a new understanding of how rich, crazy people make weird, bratty kids.

Last year’s cupcake car. Check out the creepy description: “Ever had a crowd of kids chasing after you just for the crazy gleeful heck of it?”
4.  Mystery Solver Trucker Hat

This hat is actually an homage to Frank, the trucker-hat wearing writer on 30 Rock, but I suspect we’ve got a few pals here at Murderati who might just rock a Mystery Solver hat without any irony.

3. Keurig Coffee Maker

Okay, no comedy here but what writer doesn’t need a coffee maker that brews single cups with no muss, no fuss? Total time saver.

2.  Soda Stream

No kidding around here, either, folks.  I like to think my home carbonation machine makes up for all those K-cups I’m throwing away thanks to the Keurig coffee maker.  Soda Stream even has a delivery service to send back your CO-2 tanks for refill.  Anyone who drinks sparking water should own one of these.  (Added bonus: The carbonating process makes a noise that the seven year old boys in your life, or in my case, the husband, will find absolutely hilarious.)

1.  Gee, what would I suggest as the #1 gift for the holidays?  How about… BOOKS!  You know how fun it is to discover a new writer with a backlist so you can read all the books in order?  Consider introducing your friends to new writers by buying them the first few paperbacks in a series.  Books are inexpensive, personal, and a cinch to wrap with all of those convenient right angles!

So how much online shopping are you doing this year?  And what are some of your favorite holiday finds?



The Things People Say

by Alafair Burke

I’ve been accused of being an eavesdropper.

I deny the allegation.  Eavesdropping is rude, after all.  From my perspective, I simply pay attention to the stuff that loud strangers hoist into my involuntarily captured ears. 

It’s amazing what one overhears if one simply listens.

Yesterday in the gym locker room, one young woman told her friend (loudly) all about some guy who was obviously unhappy in his relationship and just biding his time before dumping his dull, undeserving girlfriend.  “I think he hopes she’ll figure it out on her own.”  The woman who was speaking was apparently all ready to move into his apartment once the breakup happened.  “There’s even outdoor space.”  Hopefully she hasn’t given up her lease yet.

The stuff I overhear in the locker room at Bikram Yoga always makes me feel guilty.  “Are you doing a double today?” “No, I did one yesterday and will do one tomorrow.”  (Mind you, this is a 90 minute class in a 105 degree room with 40 percent humidity.  The only kind of double I’m thinking of when it’s over is a double-long nap.) 

My favorite overheard exchange after yoga went like this: “Are you doing anything for your birthday tonight?” “X is taking me to Y.  I can’t wait.  I’m going to let myself have a glass of wine.”

Based on these overheard conversations, I should have known better last week than to try to strike one up with the familiar face next to me.  Me: “If I’d known it was going to be so warm out, I would have gone running instead.”  Her: “Just do both.”

Thanks to bad cell phone etiquette, the elevator’s another place I hear stuff about strangers (or I guess neighbors), and it’s always stuff I’d rather not know.  Business deals.  The scheduling of appointments.  Those endless, “Where are you?  What are you doing?” phone calls that women of a certain (young) age just can’t seem to help themselves from making — on crowded elevators.

Overhearing people on the street is best of all, because all you get is a two-second clip of some larger conversation – a conversation that, if you’re me, you’ll be left wondering about for the rest of the day.  For a while, I even kept a list of crazy stuff I overheard on 14th Street, the busy street where I live in Manhattan.   Here are some of the more interesting, humorous, or simply odd gems (verbatim, seriously): 

“You ought to try that space out. During the day? Looks like it could be pretty cool.”
-one panhandler to another

“How socially aware.”  “Yeah, those guys totally deserve to get stabbed.”
-an exchange between two high school kids after they passed two idiots wearing blackface on Halloween

“She said excuse me. I was like, excuse me? Excuse you! I’m standing here. You can walk around.”
– Dude blocking the Union Square subway entrance

“I ended up crawling on the ground looking for all kinds of shit. Like, shit I don’t even have. Like, I knew I’d find a jar of peanut butter”

“All he wants to do is go to these daddy parties.”

“That wretched, ungrateful wench.”

“I’ll trade this girl for some Taco Bell. Any takers?”

“I don’t do porn.”
– sidewalk DVD vendor to customer

“No use lie-ing. I just want a beer.”
– Okay, technically, I saw that on a panhandling sign.  I didn’t hear it.

“Every time I think something’s going to happen, it doesn’t happen. This has been my year of, like, …nothing.”

“They skype, like, everyday.” “Oh My God, they have to work out. We have to make sure they work out.”

“My ex-wife is cheating on her current husband to be with me.”

“That dog is not going to eat broccoli.”
– OK, technically I didn’t overhear that one either. Someone said it to my face when I stopped to let Duffer try to eat a piece of brocolli dropped on the sidewalk.

“…with some man who said he wanted to kidnap me!”
(See above comment about odd, out of context conversational snippets)

“Just get a bunch of product and make it messy Kate Moss hair.”

“Don’t you even try to say a word to me. You the one got two babies by two first cousins.”
(Yep, that was the one that prompted me to start keeping a list.)

My apologies, but only fans of Arrested Development will understand the relevance of this picture

So, how about it?  Do you “eavesdrop”?  What have you overheard lately?