by Alafair Burke
Published by HarperCollins
352 pages, 2008
Finding Mr. Wrong
Reviewed by Jim Winter
“In a city full of victims, it’s hard to choose just one.”
So goes the tag line to Alafair Burke’s second Detective Ellie Hatcher novel, Angel’s Tip. The story begins with wild Chelsea Hart from Indiana becoming Manhattan’s latest victim. She spends the first chapter dragging two friends from one party to the next on their last night of spring break.
The following morning, Hatcher finds Chelsea’s hacked-up body during a morning jog through East River Park. Hatcher is not even on duty, but she and her new partner, J.J. Rogan, catch the case. Their boss, Lieutenant Dan Eckels, would prefer to give it to someone other than Hatcher, but he nonetheless puts the pair to work.
This doesn’t appear at first to be a serial-killer case. Hatcher and Rogan arrest one of the young executives with whom Chelsea and her friends had been hanging out on the night of her slaying. There are plenty of fingerprints and DNA samples from which to build their case, and enough witnesses make deals with New York’s district attorney that the two cops are confident they can slam the door on their privileged suspect. Meanwhile, though, the media go into a feeding frenzy. The developing story of Chelsea Hart’s murder strains Hatcher’s relationship with reporter Peter Morse. Hatcher soon questions Morse’s motives as information leaks to the press. To make matters worse, Morse’s editor, the aggressive and swaggering George Kittre, is pushing him to take advantage of his relationship with Detective Hatcher.
But when the father of a previously murdered girl calls Hatcher, our heroine starts to question her air-tight case. She wonders if a long-dormant serial killer has suddenly decided to go on the prowl again. The connective thread is there, if not readily apparent, in the unsolved murders of three women five years earlier. Still, that long-ago destroyer targeted women from New York’s seedier side, not fresh-faced college girls from out of town. Regardless, Ellie Hatcher can sense the link. Chelsea’s killer has left a clue specifically intended for her. It points to the fact that the guilty party admires William Summer, the serial slayer who did in Hatcher’s father. Summer’s posthumous presence in this novel evokes the BTK Killer in mood, though not necessarily in style.
Author Burke does a good job backfilling Hatcher’s story without making you wish you’d first read her previous effort, last year’s Dead Connection. Much of it reads as if it were the beginning of a series, with Rogan presented as a new partner and Eckels resenting Hatcher as a fast-rising rookie. If anything, the people around Ellie Hatcher, particularly Rogan, are far more interesting than Hatcher herself. Burke’s victims are also interesting. Chelsea Hart, seen through the eyes of her spring break companion Stephanie Hyder, is a fully realized character, certainly a handful for her parents back in Indiana. Burke does an especially good job on Rachel Peck, a later victim who is an aspiring novelist. She follows Peck in the days leading up to her own murder, leaving the reader pulling for Peck to finish her book and sell it.
My favorite member of this cast, though, is J.J. Rogan, a character full of surprises. He’s a black cop with a little inherited money, which allows him some style while also raising questions in the minds of his fellow cops. He also can bring up the race card without being in-your-face about it. Racial prejudice is a fact of life for him, and he prefers knowing up front how his partner will respond. Rogan also puts a premium on loyalty. As long as Hatcher either keeps him in the loop or promises her bizarre theories are based on good instincts, Rogan will back her. But he makes it clear it’s a two-way street.
What I found lacking in Angel’s Tip was Ellie Hatcher herself. She is a serviceable protagonist and can certainly carry the yarn. However, she comes off as a bit bland, the standard single white female with relationship issues. She seems to be more of a catalyst in her own story than the driver of it. Only occasionally, such as when she realizes Kittre is using Morse’s relationship with her to gather information, does she really take charge. She cuts Morse off, letting him have it for his betrayal.
Lieutenant Eckels seems almost as flatly portrayed, at least until his own behavior attracts unwanted attention. Then he’s a man with something to hide. Ultimately, his secrecy will have long-term consequences for Burke’s series detective pair.
Where Alafair Burke really shines is in building suspense. In a move reminiscent of Reed Farrel Coleman’s work, she hands her cops an open-and-shut case, only to have it unravel halfway through the book. As a slam-dunk evaporates even before Rachel Peck’s homicide, Burke shifts suspicion to just about everyone except Hatcher and Rogan. Her pacing is nearly pitch-perfect with not a single scene dragging. In fact, one wonders when any of the characters, the killer included, get any sleep.
Angel’s Tip is a solid entry into a new series. It’s not a perfect thriller, but it delivers where it counts. | October 2008
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and former comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s an occasional contributor to Crimespree and frequent contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.