August 28, 2012

A chip off the old Burke?

Alafair Burke is the creator of two series of books featuring strong women - the Ellie Hatcher series and the Samantha Kincaid series. Never Tell belongs to the former, where Ellie Hatcher is a police detective in New York investigating the suicide - or was it murder? - of a young girl.

Like Peter Leonard in my post about his book, Burke labours under the weight of a famous writing father - in this case, James Lee Burke, one of the most celebrated authors - never mind crime authors - in the US. Where Leonard went into the past to escape comparison with his father's current work, Burke has traveled into the big city, thus separating herself from her father's association with rural Louisiana and Montana.

Another differentiator she's landed on is that of style - James Lee Burke is poetic, reflective, descriptive, and goes to the heart of male violence. Alafair Burke by contrast uses her female perspective to create a style that is more inward but, conversely, more matter-of-fact. Ellie Hatcher is beautiful, we're told, but hates it being mentioned ... she just wants the facts, ma'am. In this book she contemplates her relationship with her current beau and must decide, by book's end, whether to move in with him or not - so there is a certain amount of emotional reflection; but in general she's a problem-solver.

Most of the book is taken up with interviewing characters associated with the dead girl in order to get at 'the truth' of her death. During these interviews Hatcher often uses her intuition to make sense of what's going on, but Burke cleverly resists the temptation to play the card of 'woman detective = empathetic and caring'. In fact, at the beginning of this case it's made clear that Hatcher thinks it's a straight-up suicide and that there's no question of murder. This puts us on the alert that she's probably jumping to conclusions (why would a crime novel investigate a suicide, after all?). And it also helps build Hatcher's character as someone who can accept she's at fault when she later admits it was murder. In these ways, Burke starts to construct a story that plays with our preconceptions of what a female detective should be like compared to how she actually behaves.

Another way in which it diverges from a standard crime novel is that there's very little action. This is not to say that the book is dull but that the action is in solving the problem. Like a Greek tragedy, the action takes place off-stage. To be true there is a scene involving action towards the end of the book, but this is actually minimal and Hatcher and her partner Rogan enter the scene almost as the 'action' element concludes.

This places a lot of stress on the story to hold the attention, and Burke has to work hard to give us twists and turns and revelations in order to keep us involved. There's very little tension and in fact we don't really care that much about the subsidiary characters, so that any danger they might face means little to us.

Instead, we see the case unfold through the filter of Hatcher's consciousness. The book isn't told through the first person, but Burke's narrative voice inhabits Hatcher's consciousness very closely:
Ellie interrupted on occasion to voice aloud the questions raging in her head. Didn’t you notice your daughter had an eating disorder? Why would you ask that? She’s naturally thin. Right, despite that chubby adolescent picture on the mantel. Did it dawn on you your daughter might have reasons to feel lost? Have you heard anything I’ve been saying to you, Detective? Have you been listening to yourself?
Ellie already had this guy’s number. Just because your daughter appears calm does not mean she is calm. She knew it was a bad habit, but she couldn’t help it: Ellie formed impressions of people immediately upon meeting them. George Langston struck her as a well-meaning but rigid man, both physically and psychologically. 
There are a couple of devices intended to move us away from Hatcher's thought-processes, but these are a little clunky and seem to be added in order to build tension, usually at the end of a chapter:
It did not take long to type a reply to the post:
“I will show you damage. I will show you loss of free will. I will show you harm. And you will never make it stop.”
The typist did not know that on a different computer, at a public library in the suburbs of Buffalo, an ex-convict named Jimmy Grisco was doing some online reading of his own.
These references to Grisco are scattered through the book and are explained at the end, but as we never 'meet' Grisco in person, it's hard to give him any credibility and, in fact, he functions as a plot enabler, not as a character in his own right. At moments like these, Burke's tactics become obvious and inspire more of a groan than a shiver of fearful anticipation.

What lessons can a writer draw from the book, then?

First, it can be useful to have a central character go against the grain of the reader's expectations. Rogan, Hatcher's partner, cottons on more quickly than she does that the 'suicide' might not be so straightforward. His unhappiness with Hatcher's lack of attention helps define her character and lends her more humanity. We know as we're reading that of course this case must be more complex than she is allowing, so that builds our interest and our determination for Hatcher to see the light and move the case on.

Burke's writing style is workmanlike and unadventurous, without the lyricism and tenderness of her father. This isn't such a problem, however, as the book is concerned with problem-solving, not the creation of a world to house her characters - we all know New York from TV shows like CSI (referred to by one of the characters) and others. The absence of style works to the extent that it focuses attention on facts and details and on characters.

But it does leach the book of a certain amount of resonance. It's as though Burke is taking this description of Hatcher's processes as her modus operandi when it comes to literary style:
But Ellie knew her true motivations. She was being rational. She was acting on evidence, not emotion; on reality, not old memories.
So nary a metaphor or simile or image appears in the book, even when there's the opportunity:
As she took the seat offered in the parlor room adjacent to the foyer, Ellie found herself distracted by the man’s appearance. He was more than twice her age, but still handsome with longish salt-and-pepper hair, a strong jaw, and the kind of wear and tear considered distinguished on a man. But Ellie kept seeing the man he’d once been—the man photographed so many times with famous musicians from her childhood, at spots like Studio 54, with then-starlets like Ali MacGraw and Carrie Fisher.
This is a physical description of Whitmire sure enough, but it doesn't give any impression of what he's like, sitting there on the sofa.  Her attempt to build his character is made through the association of Whitmire with Ali McGraw and Carrie Fisher, not through a suggestive image or simile. This reduces the texture of the writing, and the book.

Finally there's a lesson about the use of lesser or subsidiary characters. As I mentioned, Grisco is introduced tangentially through his actions. Because of the role he plays in the story, Burke can't say too much about him. But there might have been ways to show him interacting with others and hence demonstrate his character or personality. This would have helped us invest a little more in him and his story as it's revealed towards the end. As it is, he starts a shadow and ends a shadow, despite the large part he turns out to have played in the book's storyline.

Alafair Burke's books are efficient and easy to read (though this took me an inordinately long time to finish!). They have the virtue of a reasonably fast pace and clarity of exposition, and the stories and criminal investigations are done well enough.

The next step is to introduce a sense of a larger world, of deeper motivation, even of spiritual depth. Unfortunately, she needs to write a little bit more like her father.

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