Judgment Calls

by Alafair Burke

Published by Henry Holt and Company

256 pages, 2003

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Read an excerpt of Judgment Calls by Alafair Burke






River City Jam

Reviewed by Sarah Weinman


Let's get the obvious statements out of the way first. Yes, she is the youngest daughter of James Lee Burke, author of the Dave Robicheaux series (Jolie Blon's Bounce) and one of crime fiction's legends. Yes, there is an unbelievable amount of hype surrounding this debut novel, and publisher Holt is pulling out all the stops, with extensive promotion, publicity and a 15-city author tour. And finally, yes, Alafair Burke is the real deal, with her own take on things and exhibiting a considerable amount of promise. I'm happy, and a bit relieved, to say that Judgment Calls is a fine work, introducing what I hope will be a long-running series about the trials and tribulations of Samantha Kincaid.

Kincaid is a deputy district attorney in Oregon's Multnomah County. For the past couple of years she's worked low-level drug cases for the Portland-based office, but when a 13-year-old prostitute, Kendra Martin, is brutally raped and left for dead, Kincaid dives into the biggest legal proceeding of her career. Unfortunately, the case against the main suspect, Frank Derringer, is slimmer than would be ideal. It hinges on a few telltale bits of evidence: a single fingerprint found on Kendra's handbag, the discovery that Derringer's car was just repainted (a too-obvious way to conceal proof of a crime committed) and the fact that he was picked out of a lineup by the victim. Unfortunately, eyewitness identification is too easy to undermine, even when the certainty seems absolute, and Kendra's memory of the night of her assault is noticeably foggy. Even though Samantha is sure she has a case, her methods are challenged and questioned by her colleagues, and the defendant's lawyer, a lowly rookie public defender with very little courtroom experience, proves to be far more dogged than Kincaid anticipated.

Not surprisingly, a prosecution that was supposed to be open-and-shut proves to be nothing of the sort. Connections build between Kendra's attack and another, higher-profile case, involving a convicted felon on Oregon's death row who is finally about to be executed. Then, to add yet more fuel to this fire, Derringer's lawyer drops a bombshell: several other women have been killed in attacks similar to Kendra's, and the serial killer -- who isn't the defendant, of course -- may still be on the loose. Even Kincaid's personal life comes into play, as her tangled relationship with old boyfriend Chuck Forbes, one of the cops who had investigated the attempt on Kendra Martin's life, nearly gets her kicked off the case. Eventually, the various investigative threads come together in a resolution that catches everyone -- especially the reader -- very much off-guard.

There is much to like about Judgment Calls. First and foremost is Samantha Kincaid, a confident, professional woman who wishes she could come up with "the perfect zinger." In spite of her perceived failure to do so, she makes some delightfully shrewd observations. Early on in this book, Kincaid relates how and why her first marriage -- to a fellow lawyer -- dissolved:

The perfect life didn't last long. ... [W]e wound up moving to Portland after only a couple of years in New York. A few months later, I discovered that my husband had taken literally his new employer's ad slogan encouraging decisive, spontaneous, self-satisfying action. We both thought we would be working late preparing for a trial set to start the following day, but the case had settled with a last-minute guilty plea. My intention was to surprise [him] by coming home early with dinner and a movie in hand.

Instead, I found him doing it with a professional volleyball player on top of our dining room table. I got the house and everything in it, but I made sure he got the table.

And as the case against Kendra's alleged attacker progresses, Kincaid has to decide which of two available judges she wants to have sign off on a particular warrant; one's clearly not going to make the cut:

Hitchcock was a lazy old judge who smoked cigars in his chambers and pressured defendants to plead out so he could listen to Rush Limbaugh at eleven then close up shop early to play golf. I'd rather swallow a bag full of tacks and wash them down with rubbing alcohol than risk waking up Hitchcock at eleven at night.

Such observational humor is what makes Samantha Kincaid an appealing protagonist. But Alafair Burke also does a great job of illustrating the differences between Kincaid's professional life, in which she has to be a tough-as-nails lawyer, and her personal life, which allows her the opportunity to kick back a bit and relax her guard considerably. At one point, we see Samantha dishing the dirt with her best friend, Grace, a beauty parlor proprietor who is so sought after that potential dates are willing to book haircut appointments just to get on her good side. Grace is also quite unafraid to speak her mind, especially as it pertains to Samantha's love life. In reference to Chuck Forbes, she tells Kincaid:

"When are you going to realize that he makes you crazy ...? You either need to write each other off or lock yourselves in a room together until you get it out of your systems. You have this twisted, love-hate, only-happy-when-you're-not-getting-together kind of relationship. And every time you see him you dwell on it for the next two weeks, but won't let yourself follow through. I am driven crazy by osmosis."

As complicated as Samantha's relationship with Forbes once was, and continues to be, the two share a connection that will undoubtedly be explored in subsequent books. He can be argumentative and prickly, but easily switches to making off-the-cuff smart-aleck comments, which cheer Samantha up just when her latest case is affecting her most.

Perhaps the most moving of all Samantha's relationships is the one she shares with her father. Martin Kincaid is newly widowed, trying to move forward with his life ... but not quite sure how to do it. He leaves lengthy phone messages on his daughter's machine, if only to have someone to talk to. Yet Samantha looks fondly upon his quirks:

I love it that my father laughs louder at his own jokes than anyone else. I wonder if he knows that the people doubling up around him when he talks are enjoying Martin Kincaid's contagious delight with life and not the substance of what he's saying.

It would only be conjecture to suggest that Burke is injecting her relationship with her own father into her fiction; but whatever the case, the father-daughter dynamics ring very true.

Although Judgment Calls is definitely more of a character-driven piece, its plot moves briskly, compelling readers to keep going till the end. Alafair Burke, a former district attorney in Portland who currently teaches criminal law at New York's Hofstra University, certainly knows her stuff. She presents the vagaries of criminal prosecution and trial proceedings smoothly, while sidestepping a common problem of legal thrillers: their tendency to be overloaded with unnecessary details, at the expense of sufficient characterization.

Still, this novel is not without some problems. Its ending, for instance, is slightly underwhelming. There are also times when Kincaid could have behaved a little more smartly, especially in regard to her relationship with Forbes. Though their long history together means that she'd be likely to cut Forbes some slack, I wasn't totally convinced that Samantha would act the way she does without examining possible consequences.

These are minor issues, however, and do not detract from the overall conclusion that, with Judgment Calls, Alafair Burke has arrived on the crime fiction scene in dramatic fashion. Although her writing voice isn't fully grounded yet, there's no reason to doubt that her deft humor and wry observations will become sharper as Samantha Kincaid's adventures continue. In a year during which there have already been many worthy debut novels to choose from (including Lono Waiwaiole's Wiley's Lament and Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Huss), Alafair Burke's entry must be considered one of the top choices. Believe the hype -- she's going to go very far. | June 2003


Sarah Weinman is a regular contributor to January Magazine. A Canadian by birth and inclination, she is in a state of flux until she lands her first job in the forensic science field.