By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

The Ex, by Alafair Burke

JacketIt’s a quiet weekend morning on the New York waterfront when shots ring out…and suddenly three people are dead. One of the victims is Malcolm Neeley, a multimillionaire and the father of the notorious Penn Station shooter, who massacred a group of commuters three years earlier. Jack Harris — the still grieving widower of one of the victims who’d just lost a civil suit against Neeley — becomes the prime suspect. Desperate not to lose her only remaining parent, Jack’s daughter, Buckley, calls his former fiancée, defense lawyer Olivia Randall, and begs her to take Jack’s case.

Olivia still carries an immense amount of guilt for the way she ended her relationship with Jack years ago. The Jack she knows would never have committed such a terrible crime. Against the warnings of her boss and even the prosecutor’s office (who assure her that they have a slam dunk case), Olivia agrees to defend Jack.

The Ex, by Alafair Burke, is a fast paced, white-knuckler courtroom drama, written by an author who has clearly done her homework. Burke never gets bogged down in legalese, and her tight storytelling doesn’t scrimp on the details. Anyone even remotely familiar with this type of mystery will know that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark from page one, but getting to the who, what, where, when and most importantly, the why, makes for a tense, roller coaster of a ride.

Burke asks the typical questions readers tend to see in legal thrillers, but her answers feel more authentic than your average suspense novel. Yes, it’s true we never really know those closest to us, and that people wear masks to project the image they want the world to remember, but Burke’s characters have realistic motivations for the things they do. I could picture myself ending a relationship the way Olivia did, bad choices and all. I understood Jack’s grief for his wife, even while he questioned the worth of his marriage. People act like this.

High octane arguments between Olivia and her combatants in the DA’s office, along with sharp and witty exchanges between her team of investigators and assistants as they work on Jack’s defense all serve to heighten the tension as the story unfolds. But the dialogue never descends into the snarky platitudes that I think less talented authors in this genre sometimes succumb. In much the same way you would expect a clever lawyer to weigh the words of a legal brief, Burke clearly understands the importance of balancing great storytelling with solid writing.

Burke also possesses an expert’s handle on social media and the way people actually live. Buckley, the teenage daughter, makes the perfect conduit for explaining anything techy, but none of the characters are the stereotypical technophobe characters who grump, “oh I still have a flip phone.” and go cross-eyed as soon as someone mentions Instant Messaging. Burke cleverly invents a social networking site that’s part Reddit and part Facebook that feels like something people might actually want to be a part of. It’s a clever and well-executed device that I’ve never seen handled more adroitly.

This surprisingly insightful thrill ride was a great pleasure to read. Although I may have seen the end coming, Burke’s excellent writing and relatable, sympathetic characters meant that I didn’t mind this fact one bit.


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