Review | Dead Connection by Alafair Burke

Dead Connection

by Alafair Burke

Published by Henry Holt

336 pages, 2007







The Lively “Dead”

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

Midway through Dead Connection there’s this moment where everything seems to hang in the balance and you wonder how author Alafair Burke is going to pull this thing off. The story is just so ambitious. And there are enough good ideas here for three smart books. Internet dating. The Russian mafia. Corrupt cops and compromised FBI agents. Identity theft. A possible serial killer. More. And in this midway moment you think there’s just no way that all these things will come together in a manner that will make any kind of satisfying sense. And then it does. I mean, it really does.

Burke’s first three novels featured an engaging protagonist named Samantha Kincaid. Kincaid was a Portland, Oregon-based assistant district attorney, a post Burke once held herself. The Kincaid novels -- Judgment Calls (2004), Missing Justice (2004) and Close Case (2005) -- were all very good. Kincaid was a pleasant companion and the cases she managed to solve were challenging to the intelligent reader. Frankly, I liked Kincaid well enough that I was disappointed when I realized that Burke’s latest novel featured a brand-new protagonist, a young New York City police detective named Ellie Hatcher. But as good as the Kincaid novels were, this first Hatcher book is even better. A little darker, a little sharper and as intricate and tightly wound as anything you’re likely to see, Dead Connection manages to pull on some of the stereotypes that have become the tropes of this genre and turn them effortlessly on their ears.

At age 30, Ellie Hatcher hardly seems old enough to be dragging around so much baggage. When she was a kid back in Wichita, Kansas, her detective father lost his life in the midst of trying to take down a serial killer. The loss of the man whose footsteps she has followed into police work shaped Ellie, for better and for worse.

As this book opens, Ellie has been a detective for a little more than a year. She’s quite happily working scams and robberies when she’s surprised by a special temporary assignment to homicide. Flann McIllroy is the well known -- infamous, really -- homicide detective who has requested her as his partner on a single case. She recognizes his name.

The truth was she usually heard Flann McIllroy referred to by a slightly different name. McIl-Mulder, as he was called, was a colorful subject of discussion -- usually complaints -- among other career detectives who resented the singular adoration he appeared to enjoy. In the case that sealed his status as a media darling, a clinical psychiatrist had been pulled from the elevator of her Central Park West building when it stopped at a floor that was supposedly closed for construction. She had been stabbed eighty-eight times. The M.E. couldn’t determine whether the rape came before, during, or after.

We’re delivered this back-story on page 15 of Dead Connection -- along with as much as we need to know up to that point of Ellie’s own background. It’s a skillful sharing of information and you feel at times as though you’re reading the sixth book in an especially engaging series. And it is this feeling of walking into something larger that really sets Burke’s fourth novel apart. Ellie is a well-drawn character with details and nuance beyond expectation. The mystery here is compelling. The thriller elements keep us properly poised on the edge of our seats. It’s a good book. But Burke has also given us a complete world, much deeper than one would expect in the first installment of a series.

And the pace is relentless. We get a hint of this on the tale’s opening page when we share breakfast with a man whose name we don’t know, but who we suspect is a killer. On the story’s third page, we are told that it’s “[t]hree hundred and sixty four days later” and that we’re on a blind date with a girl named Amy. And, not many pages after that, the date ends up going badly. Really badly. Just as bad as a blind date can ever go. The chapter ends on a note that is simultaneously chilling and tantalizing:

With a gloved hand, her killer placed a single piece of paper in Amy’s coat pocket, satisfied with the puzzled and panicked look that had crossed her face in those final seconds. It was a look of recognition. It was a look of profound regret. It had been precisely as he had wanted it. He wondered if the others would flow so smoothly. How many more until they notice?

Then, finally, we meet Ellie, are given that back-story, and watch as she is partnered with Flann McIllroy and introduced to the case he’s working on, connecting the violent deaths of two attractive young women to an Internet introduction service.

There’s room enough in a story that spins out from an online dating site to base the whole plot: no side trips required. It is, after all, a danger to go further afield. The more elements the author introduces, the more balls have to be juggled in the air, and the more we -- the readers -- need them all nicely dealt with by the time we get to “The End.” But if Burke was afraid of this very ambitious tale, she gives no sign of it. Rather, she confidently introduces the possibility of a serial killer, crooked cops, a connection to the Russian mafia, a homicide detective with a thirst for the limelight and the demons that ride roughshod on Ellie’s back. Nor is the author’s confidence misplaced. There are no missteps in Dead Connection, only the sharp reverberations of a story well told.

As much as I enjoyed Burke’s earlier novels -- and I really, really did -- Dead Connection leaves them in the dust. Smart, sophisticated and with a plot so twisty, no one will beat the protagonist to the conclusion, Burke has delivered her best book thus far. | August 2007

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and a contributor to The Rap Sheet. Her fourth novel, Death Was the Other Woman, will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January 2008.