Novel of award-winning attorney-author presaged the current #MeToo movement


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

New York Times best-selling novelist/Edgar Award nominee Alafair Burke did not want to become an author.

That’s a pretty bold statement, given that her father is New York Times best-selling novelist James Lee Burke, a double-Edgar winner. His character Dave Robicheaux has been portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1996’s Heaven’s Prisoners and Tommy Lee Jones in 2009’s In the Electric Mist.

“I never thought I’d be a writer in part because my father was always telling me I would be, so I went in a completely different direction and became a lawyer,” said Burke, laughing.

Burke has written 16 novels, including The Wife (Harper Collins $26), a recently-released stand-alone. She is the author of the Samantha Kincaid series and the Ellie Hatcher series. With fellow New York Times best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark, she’s co-

written four books featuring Laurie Moran, a television producer whose show spotlights cold cases.

“Mary didn’t want to add another series to her body of work, but she was open to the idea of doing it with a co-author,” said Burke. “As I understand it, she looked at various experienced writers who had written a series before and somehow picked me. It still feels crazy after all these years.”

Burke earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and her juris doctor in law from Stanford Law School, graduating as a member of the Order of the Coif. She currently teaches law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. She lives in New York City with Sean Simpson, her husband of 12 years.

“At Reed, I was studying memory. I was thinking I’d go to graduate school and research the reliability – and sometimes the unreliability – of eyewitness memory,” explained Burke. “But if you’re in that world, you’re not only studying cognitive research, but also applied application – expert testimony, how mistaken identity leads to wrongful convictions. I found myself more interested in the legal side when seeing the interaction between the research and the legal world. I decided to apply to law school and wound up becoming a prosecutor from there… I could’ve gone into criminal law on either side but even as a law student, I appreciated the enormous power and discretion that an American prosecutor has. The more good people to go into that work, the better the system. I did it for several years.”

Burke’s experience as a Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney in Oregon inspired her Kincaid series, which was also about a prosecutor in Oregon.

“Those books were set in the very office where I’d worked for the D.A. The first book came from extremely fictionalized mash-ups of several different cases I’d seen when I was there. I liked the setting and the character and thought I had something to offer, so I figured I’d write one day. I was lucky enough to sell it,” she said.  “All the characters I’ve created are apart from me. None of them are autobiographical. Of the characters I’ve created, [Kincaid is] the most like me. She has my sensibilities to some extent. She has the same job, the same sense of humor, she’s taller, she’s thinner, and she runs faster.”

Fellow New York Times best-selling novelist Linda Fairstein, an ex-prosecutor, praised Burke’s work.

“One might say I’m prejudiced in this regard, but I really do think that good lawyers write some of the best crime novels. Brad Meltzer is a powerhouse thriller writer, James Grippando is a master of twists and turns, and Alafair Burke brings her prosecutorial past to a widening range of outstanding storylines. On top of that, all three are wonderfully fine people, a delight to stand shoulder-to-shoulder – or spine-to-spine – with them on bookshelves,” said Fairstein.

In The Wife, the life of Angela Powell is shattered when her handsome husband Jason, a successful economics professor, financial consultant, author, and frequent news show guest, is accused of sexual harassment.

When college intern Rachel Sutton makes accusations against Jason, another woman, Kerry Lynch, comes forward with a rape allegation. Angela and Jason’s life together unravels. Jason insists he’s innocent; Angela believes him. But when Kerry disappears, Angela’s forced to take a closer look at the man she married and the women she chose not to believe.

“Angela’s backstory came first. I had that character in mind for years. [She grew] up as one of the locals in the Hamptons, which has become a glitzy, celebrity-laden place. It didn’t used to be like that,” said Burke. “I had all of her background with me for a while and I was just trying to figure out how to transition that character into a book.”

At the same time, Burke was following the cases of well-known public figures accused of sexual misconduct. This was before the #MeToo movement that started in October 2017 in the wake of numerous sexual assault allegations against mega-movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Other celebrities accused of sexual misconduct include actor Kevin Spacey and TV personality Matt Lauer.

Many actresses shared their stories about sexual misconduct, including Alyssa Milano (who popularized #MeToo when encouraging women to put it on social media), Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as actor/Flint native Terry Crews. 

“I started the book two years ago. Even then, you had Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, and [former Congressman] Anthony Weiner who were accused of sexual misconduct,” said Burke.

One of Cosby’s litigants sought to depose his wife Camille Cosby, who invoked spousal privilege. However, in addition to being Cosby’s wife, she is also part of his management team and involved in his business affairs. In that role, Camille was deposed.

“I was just picturing this accomplished woman who’d gotten her doctorate while helping Cosby build a career and raising their children getting dragged into this. I was picturing her putting her makeup on and picking out her clothes before going to that deposition,” explained Burke. “I thought, ‘That’s the story.’ What’s it like to be the wife in one of these situations? What if you have your own complicated story? That’s where Angela’s background came in. It was this marriage – no pun intended – of Angela’s character and the bizarre scenario of getting pulled into your husband’s sexual abuse case and wondering what to believe.”

She continued: “Angela’s the type of person who, in the abstract, would read these accusations about a stranger and would say, ‘I believe the woman every time.’ But when it’s her own husband, she says, ‘I know my husband. He has to be innocent.’ Our first reaction is shock. The second reaction is it can’t be. Eventually, we look at the wife and say, ‘What did you know? What are you thinking? Now you’re complicit. Why are you still there?’ If he’s innocent, it’s consensual… so why is she still there? He’s either a predator or a constant philanderer, yet she’s still defending him.”

According to Burke, the story of what it’s like to be a woman living a fairly private life then to be suddenly thrust into the media spotlight intrigued her.

“All of a sudden, the whole world thinks that they know you – knowing people are scrutinizing you, especially if you’re not what people insist you be,” she said. “When I started the book, I didn’t know what Jason’d be accused of. I didn’t know whether he did it or not. I didn’t know whether he’d be convicted or not. I realized that’s okay because Angela wouldn’t know either… I decided we’ll go on this journey together. I just started writing it from when she saw his name trending, she started calling around to figure out what it is, and off we went. I wanted to get their marriage right on the page, and I wanted the dynamics of the sexual abuse claims to be dealt with properly… Angela was reluctant to believe these women accusing her husband. I needed someone in the book who believed him; otherwise, I don’t think I would’ve liked the book as much.”

Currently, Burke is working on her fifth collaboration with Clark and her next novel, which is another stand-alone. The Wife and Long Gone have been optioned for film.

“Alafair is the daughter of literary royalty and she’s living up to the family name,” said author/former Michigan State University law professor Anthony Franze. “One of Alafair’s gifts is anticipating tomorrow’s headlines and turning them into twisty page-turners that don’t just thrill, they make you think. I read The Wife in one sitting, and think it’s her best to date.”

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