Thursday, June 7, 2012

Alafair Burke "Long Gone"

After half a dozen titles in the crime fiction police procedural side of things Alafair Burke’s seventh novel shifts to the other side of the investigatory fence. Portland, Oregon prosecutor Samantha Kincaid and NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher are handed cases and given the task of figuring out who was responsible for the killing but in Long Gone art gallery manager Alice Humphrey is presented with a corpse and an empty gallery and has to prove she wasn’t responsible.

That’s hardly an unusual basis for a pot line when you’re talking thrillers. There are plenty of similar efforts involving an honest, Officer, it wasn’t me narrative, and the key ingredient, as far as I can see, is to make the suspect’s situation and protestations of innocence believable while keeping the reader turning the pages to find out which of the seemingly innocent characters surrounding the protagonist was the one whodunnit.

That, in turn, requires a believable and slowly unfolding back story, and Alafair Burke seems to have that department pretty well nailed.

Alice Humphreys is the daughter of acclaimed movie director Frank Humphreys and Oscar nominated actress Rose Sampson, was a child actress and now wants to make her way on her own merits rather than sponging on the parental prominence. Having been laid off by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she’s desperate for work when an offer to manage a new art gallery in the trendy Meatpacking District lands at her feet.

Now, you might think these things are too good to be true, and if that’s the way it looks it probably is, but Burke neatly works her way around that point, making Alice the sort of person who stumbles across things rather than going out actively looking. She landed her Manhattan apartment, for example, from an overheard conversation. Some readers might find this side of things far fetched, but given her background you might anticipate that things tend to fall into place rather often.

That child actress gig more than likely came about because one of her parents’ Hollywood peers suddenly ‘realised’ Alice was just perfect for this part they were having the devil of a time filling.  Nothing to do with an ambitious stage mother. Of course not...

So Alice is at an art show when Drew Campbell, snappily dressed corporate wheeler dealer offers her a gig managing a new gallery that’s going to start by displaying the work of the not excessively talented lover of the eccentric and predictably well-heeledand anonymous owner.

Once that show’s out of the way Alice is free to go her own way and set about making a name for herself as a savvy gallery operator without exploiting the family connections. Fair enough?

Well, it would be, if the exhibition didn’t turn out to comprise nude photos of questionable artistic value that attract the attention of a fundamentalist pastor who pickets the building, raises suspicions about the age of the subjects portrayed and the question of possible child pornography. Things are getting rather desperate when Alice contacts Campbell, needing to get in contact with the mysterious owner and arranges to meet Campbell at the gallery the following morning to sort things out.

She duly arrives to find the place stripped bare, Campbell dead on the floor, and a string of circumstantial evidence that makes her the prime suspect for his murder.

By this point Burke has already thrown in another two intersecting plot lines involving the disappearance of New Jersey teenager Becca Stevenson who has, it turns out, been keeping secrets from her (single) mother and FBI agent Hank Beckman, who’s obsessively stalking the man he believes to be responsible for his sister's death.

These other two plot lines are, of course, connected to Alice’s story in some way, and it’s the finding out how that keeps the reader turning the pages.

The first question, as far as Alice’s innocence is concerned, comes down to finding out who this Drew Campbell really was since there’s nothing concrete to tie the corpse to the assumed identity. The mobile phone number Alice has been calling links to a disposable phone, the artist whose work she displayed doesn't seem to exist and there’s no way of tracking down the anonymous benefactor who’s been financing the gallery.

And, predictably, the missing teenager’s fingerprints turn up on the premises at the gallery.

As far as the NYPD are concerned, there’s no question about who’s guilty, and as the rest of the story unfolds Alice unravels the details, uncovering carefully staged deceptions, discovering secrets her family would rather forget and learning that those around her aren’t necessarily quite who they appear to be.

Those issues result is an interesting, lively-paced read with some contemporary issues (social media playing a significant part in the plot line) getting an airing. I think I’ve read all of Ms Burke’s previous efforts (even if they’re not reviewed hereabouts) and Long Gone is right up there with the rest of them, to the point where I’ll have the eyes peeled for the return of Ellie Hatcher in the forthcoming Never Tell (due out in August).

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