For the Burkes, crime fiction is all in the familyIn art as in nature, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Case in point: Alafair Burke. The daughter of acclaimed crime writer James Lee Burke was reading aloud from Cool Hand Luke at age 5 and crafting complete mystery stories with cool Burke titles such as The Case of the Cat Who Lost Its Meow long before her classmates had even mastered their ABCs.
Forget nature vs. nurture Alafair Burke had both growing up at the foot of one of the hardest working authors in crime fiction.
"When people asked what he did, I would say he was a college professor and a writer," Alafair recalls from Buffalo, New York, during a conference call that included her famous father. "He wrote every day in the house; that was what I would see him do. His good habits, I think, rubbed off on the kids."Rubbed off, indeed. All four Burke children have been successful in their careers. Andree is a psychologist, Pamala a television ad producer, and Alafair, the youngest, followed her brother Jim Jr. into law as a prosecuting attorney.
"Alafair was a straight-A student from first grade all the way through Stanford law," the proud father chimes in from the family's summer home in Missoula, Montana. "She was Phi Beta Kappa at Reed College and graduated at the top of her class at Stanford law."To which Alafair commences blushing in Buffalo.
"The downside of the story is she gets it from her mom!" James howls, bursting into his distinctive full-throated belly laugh.
Pearl, his wife of 43 years, is an irrepressible Beijing-born painter and photographer who once served as a flight attendant with Air America. The two met as creative writing graduate students at the University of Missouri.
The occasion of this father-daughter tele-reunion is the publication of Judgment Calls, Alafair's debut legal thriller and first in a planned series. Samantha Kincaid, deputy district attorney for Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon, is old enough to know the ropes but young enough to care. When a 13-year-old prostitute is brutally attacked on the outskirts of town, Kincaid decides to press for an attempted murder conviction against the advice of her boss, Tim O'Donnell, who would rather accept an assault plea.
Kincaid's moral compass quickly leads her into Portland's darker corners, where an underage prostitution ring, a headline-making death penalty case and a serial killer make her question her own judgment calls.
Alafair admits she modeled Sam after her own experiences as an assistant Multnomah County D.A.; she spent five years there and tried more than 30 cases, most of them involving domestic violence, before accepting a teaching position at Hofstra School of Law.
"She's a bit of a tougher egg than I am; she's probably more of what I strive to be than what I am," Alafair admits. "She has kind of a crazy personality where she does everything to extremes. She's a little obsessive."The title is a lovely double entendre, invoking both the art of the law and its very real consequences. Judgment Calls reveals what really happens in the sidebars and behind closed doors in the judge's chambers, where life-or-death decisions are never black or white.
"That is something that I might be able to bring from my background that is unique compared to other writers. The prosecutor really wields an incredible amount of discretion," she says. "Cases that have the potential to have really serious ramifications will be lost in the shuffle of a busy D.A.'s office where every attorney is literally handling hundreds of files a month. The vast majority of criminal cases get pled out and nobody really looks at them."Alafair showed a knack for the well-turned book title early on. At age 6, she giggled out the title The Lost Get-Back Boogie after listening with her father to a recording of Woody Guthrie's "Lost Train Blues.""I went upstairs and wrote that on the title page" of the novel he was then writing, Jim recalls. "The book became infamous for setting the record at 111 as the most rejected title and book in the history of New York publishing. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize after it was finally published by LSU Press," in 1986.
A love of law and language runs deep as willow roots in the Burke family. Jim estimates there are five generations of lawyers in his bloodline going back to his great-grandfather, Robert Perry, a Louisiana judge whose Civil War adventures Burke chronicled in last year's White Doves at Morning. Burke himself studied pre-law before writing took a firm grip on him.
Given the bayou setting of her father's Dave Robicheaux series, some may be surprised to find Alafair's work set in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, Alafair was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where her father was teaching at Miami-Dade Community College, grew up from age 8 in Wichita, Kansas, where he taught at Wichita State University, and has spent most of her adult life on the West Coast.
Paternal bragging rights aside, Professor Jim gives his straight-A daughter highest marks on her first book.
"I think this is an exceptional book. One, it's very well written. The prose is extremely professional. The dialogue is good. It's a tight book. Alafair always wrote good prose, regardless of the medium. Her essays are lovely pieces of writing; her legalistic writing is exceptional as well. She writes with the authority of experience, and there's no surrogate for that."Might Samantha Kincaid and Dave Robicheaux one day cross paths? In a strange way, they already have.
In 1988's Heaven's Prisoners, Robicheaux adopted a 6-year-old named Alafair, whom he saved from drowning when a plane full of illegal immigrants crashed in the bayou. In Burke's next Robicheaux adventure, Last Car to Elysian Fields (due in September), Alafair is in Portland working on her first novel.
"I never thought about that, Robicheaux and Kincaid meeting up," the real Alafair admits. "It's interesting to think whether those characters would like each other based on first appearances; they're both quick to sum people up. That would be like worlds colliding."