Friday, 4 March 2016
The Ex by Alafair Burke
[Writer Jack Harris is being questioned as a potential witness. This is the transcript.]
Harris: I was on my morning run, and I see this woman in a party dress, sort of a pale pink color, strapless. But she’s sitting right on the damp grass. The sun was just beginning to rise. And she’s barefoot, drinking champagne straight out of the bottle. Yes, the whole thing was sort of surreal.
Boyle: And you mentioned a basket?
Harris: She had some kind of package on the ground next to her. When I got closer, I could see it was a picnic basket. I think she noticed me looking at her, because she held up her bottle like a toast when I ran by. Oh, and she was reading.
Boyle: And you said it was the book that really intrigued you.
Harris: Well, I’m a writer. So a beautiful woman in last night’s dress, drinking champagne, with a book. What’s not to like?
Boyle: But you didn’t actually talk to her?
Harris: Oh, God, no. But then I mentioned this woman to a friend….
commentary: This transcript forms the opening pages of the book, and the experienced reader will assume that Ms Pink Dress has been found dead somewhere, and Harris is in the frame. In the first of various confoundings, Burke isn’t going in that direction at all.
Harris is going to be charged with a different crime, and the book will then move into a first person account by Olivia Randall, a criminal defense lawyer who 20 years before broke Harris’s heart in some as-yet-unspecified way. Harris’s daughter will beg Randall to act for her father, and she agrees.
From then on it’s a very twisty thriller, going along well-worn routes but with some big surprises. Olivia believes totally in Harris to begin with, but then starts to wonder – IS it possible he shot three people one morning? The legal investigations are fascinating and authentic-sounding.
I spotted various clues and made some predictions along the way, but Burke definitely had some more tricks up her sleeve, and the ending was very clever. There were some questions left (there seemed a money problem, and there were connections between a couple of characters that surely would have come up earlier) and extra ones keep coming up the more I think about it – but overall I forgave Burke that because the book was so smart, and railroaded you along to accept the plot. Some of the characters and situations were rather predictable – Olivia drinks too much and has a terrible personal life, she has a mentor-ish father-figure fellow-lawyer, there’s this great bar where she drinks and eats, the daughter Buckley is your classic smartypants damaged teen – but that was OK. It helped that this was a standalone, so you had no certainties about any of the characters. If there was one message in the book it’s that we might think we know other people, but we don’t.
This was a highly enjoyable, entertaining legal thriller, and I would certainly read more by Burke.