Sunday, September 21, 2008

Missing Justice - Alafair Burke

Missing Justice is the second novel in Alafair Burke's Samantha Kincaid series. This book finds Deputy District Attorney Samantha promoted to the Major Crimes Division of the Portland District Attorney's office and investigating her first major murder case: the murder of Clarissa Easterbrook. Clarissa Easterbrook is an administrative law judge in Portland and her husband is the attending surgeon at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Everything seems to be in the bag when Melvin Jackson is found with the murder weapon and access to the body dump site. Jackson had also been harassing Judge Easterbrook because he was about to be evicted from his public housing and would lose his children because of it. Thus, motive. The District Attorney and the Portland Police Bureau's Major Crimes Team are delirious to have this case in the bag, but Samantha isn't quite so sure. The defense for Melvin Jackson posed some questions Sam couldn't answer, questions that motivated her to start poking around a little more. When that poking brings her ex-husband onto the scene, all hell starts to break lose.

Alafair Burke is truly a master of female protagonists. I love how spunky Samantha Kincaid is. There are a lot of Sam's characteristics that I can identify with, but I am in awe of her gumption. And she sure needs it as she's surrounded by so much testosterone. But, it really takes nerve to stand up to your boss:

The entire time I'd worked here, I'd always caved when it came down to the last shove. If I was going to stick around, it was time to set some boundaries. I couldn't spend the rest of my career being lectured on a daily basis.

But along with all that spunk is a down-to-earth gal who finds herself in some rather embarrassing predicaments as well:

I bent purposefully and ever so seductively at the waist to reach my suit jacket in the passenger seat and then flicked it over my shoulder; one New Balance thrusting to the side with a determined hip. I parted my lips and let my tongue linger at the break before I spoke, 'You coming in with me or not?'

He returned my blistering gaze. Then he started laughing. A full-on, eyes shut, hands-to-the-face bust-up.

I fought competing urges to run away and cry, or to punch him in the head and then run away. 'That wasn't the response I was looking for.'

He tried to regain his composure but couldn't help himself. 'I'm sorry. But I just left you fifteen minutes ago at the precinct. What the hell happened to you?'

I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the driver's window. The combination of the air vents, my sweaty head, and that damn mud Grace had given me had left my hair in a state of Rocky Horror. Throw in the Altoid powder sprinkled across my clothing, and I was totally pathetic.

I've mentioned before that a big part of my attraction to Burke's characters is how REAL they are. How often are those "romantic" situations like the scenes you see on TV or in the movies? No, more often they are like Sam's right here. And you laugh reading this because you KNOW how Sam feels. You've been there, done that.

I read an interview that Alafair did recently and she described her books as "plot-oriented." Her plots are awesome, and I'll talk more about this one in a minute, but her characters are among the best in crime fiction, especially her females. Sam (like Ellie Hatcher) doesn't always have her hair perfect; she doesn't always make the best choices; and sometimes she doesn't say the right things. But she's intelligent; she's resourceful; she's hardworking and dedicated - and she has a dog. Burke shows how the everyday woman can be just as great a protagonist as a superhero or someone overcoming a huge life hurdle. The reason I become so engaged in these books is because I connect with the characters. If you put the wrong characters in Burke's strong plots, I don't think they would work anywhere near as well.

The Samantha Kincaid series is written in first person. I've heard a number of authors who write in first person explain that in subsequent books or series they switch to third person because first person is so restrictive. I understand that, but I also really enjoy this series in first person. It may very well be because I like Samantha so much. First person brings the reader closer to the character who is narrating, and Samantha is a character you want to know intimately.

O.k, now that I've babbled on and on about Samantha, I have to quickly add that I LOVE Ray Johnson. His wit is fabulous. Chuck Forbes is also a great supporting character. And Vinnie, the French Bulldog, with his Gumby toy steals the scene when he's around.

A fantastic protagonist, a strong supporting cast, and it doesn't stop there. The plot of this novel is completely engaging. Alafair posted at one point on her blog about the pace difference between the legal mystery and the police procedural. She wondered if the legal mystery lent itself to a slower pace because of its setting taking place more in the court room than the police procedural does. That is probably true, but this book doesn't need to move "fast." The constant mystery keeps you engaged and turning the pages. And because you know from previous Burke works, Alafair doesn't include players who are fluff. If they're there, it's for a reason. So as the reader you're constantly trying to figure out how each character comes into play in the whole scheme of things.

Alafair had me snowed on this ending. I was waiting for another character to turn out to be the culprit and I was so off base, I was on another ball field! - Did I mention her use of sports analogies? I love to try and guess the endings, and I'll never read ahead - that spoils a book for me. But my favorite books are always the ones where I can't predict the outcome. But, there's a caveat to this. I also don't like books that pull the solution out of the air with a character or evidence you don't get until the answer is revealed. Give me the clues and give me a chance to figure it out myself. I like a challenge, and I like to be surprised! I had both with this novel.

And finally, I have to add that Alafair Burke has the best sense of humor. I always laugh reading her novels. I have a hard time with crime fiction that doesn't include any humor. Crime fiction lends itself to being very dark. When an author can lift some of that darkness with humor, he/she has the potential for a great work of art. Missing Justice is exactly that - a great work of art!


Debbie September 22, 2008 at 4:15 PM  

Alafair Burke....on my list now.
By the way, I went with your book choice #3 "A Fountain Filled with Blood". It's very good.

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