by Alafair Burke
Published by Henry Holt
336 pages, 2007
The Lively “Dead”
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Midway through Dead Connection there’s this moment where everything seems to hang in the balance and you wonder how author Alafair Burke is going to pull this thing off. The story is just so ambitious. And there are enough good ideas here for three smart books. Internet dating. The Russian mafia. Corrupt cops and compromised FBI agents. Identity theft. A possible serial killer. More. And in this midway moment you think there’s just no way that all these things will come together in a manner that will make any kind of satisfying sense. And then it does. I mean, it really does.
Burke’s first three novels featured an engaging protagonist named Samantha Kincaid. Kincaid was a Portland, Oregon-based assistant district attorney, a post Burke once held herself. The Kincaid novels -- Judgment Calls (2004), Missing Justice (2004) and Close Case (2005) -- were all very good. Kincaid was a pleasant companion and the cases she managed to solve were challenging to the intelligent reader. Frankly, I liked Kincaid well enough that I was disappointed when I realized that Burke’s latest novel featured a brand-new protagonist, a young New York City police detective named Ellie Hatcher. But as good as the Kincaid novels were, this first Hatcher book is even better. A little darker, a little sharper and as intricate and tightly wound as anything you’re likely to see, Dead Connection manages to pull on some of the stereotypes that have become the tropes of this genre and turn them effortlessly on their ears.
At age 30, Ellie Hatcher hardly seems old enough to be dragging around so much baggage. When she was a kid back in Wichita, Kansas, her detective father lost his life in the midst of trying to take down a serial killer. The loss of the man whose footsteps she has followed into police work shaped Ellie, for better and for worse.
As this book opens, Ellie has been a detective for a little more than a year. She’s quite happily working scams and robberies when she’s surprised by a special temporary assignment to homicide. Flann McIllroy is the well known -- infamous, really -- homicide detective who has requested her as his partner on a single case. She recognizes his name.
We’re delivered this back-story on page 15 of Dead Connection -- along with as much as we need to know up to that point of Ellie’s own background. It’s a skillful sharing of information and you feel at times as though you’re reading the sixth book in an especially engaging series. And it is this feeling of walking into something larger that really sets Burke’s fourth novel apart. Ellie is a well-drawn character with details and nuance beyond expectation. The mystery here is compelling. The thriller elements keep us properly poised on the edge of our seats. It’s a good book. But Burke has also given us a complete world, much deeper than one would expect in the first installment of a series.
And the pace is relentless. We get a hint of this on the tale’s opening page when we share breakfast with a man whose name we don’t know, but who we suspect is a killer. On the story’s third page, we are told that it’s “[t]hree hundred and sixty four days later” and that we’re on a blind date with a girl named Amy. And, not many pages after that, the date ends up going badly. Really badly. Just as bad as a blind date can ever go. The chapter ends on a note that is simultaneously chilling and tantalizing:
Then, finally, we meet Ellie, are given that back-story, and watch as she is partnered with Flann McIllroy and introduced to the case he’s working on, connecting the violent deaths of two attractive young women to an Internet introduction service.
There’s room enough in a story that spins out from an online dating site to base the whole plot: no side trips required. It is, after all, a danger to go further afield. The more elements the author introduces, the more balls have to be juggled in the air, and the more we -- the readers -- need them all nicely dealt with by the time we get to “The End.” But if Burke was afraid of this very ambitious tale, she gives no sign of it. Rather, she confidently introduces the possibility of a serial killer, crooked cops, a connection to the Russian mafia, a homicide detective with a thirst for the limelight and the demons that ride roughshod on Ellie’s back. Nor is the author’s confidence misplaced. There are no missteps in Dead Connection, only the sharp reverberations of a story well told.
As much as I enjoyed Burke’s earlier novels -- and I really, really did -- Dead Connection leaves them in the dust. Smart, sophisticated and with a plot so twisty, no one will beat the protagonist to the conclusion, Burke has delivered her best book thus far. | August 2007