Murder on the Beach is a small mystery bookstore with blood red walls and strategically ripped crime scene tape strewn around the doorways. On Monday night, many of the floating bookshelves had been pushed into corners to make room. It was a packed house. Nearly thirty people showed up, and extra chairs had to be brought out from the back room.
Alafair Burke is the author of two mystery book series. She is currently on a publicity tour for her latest novel, The Ex, a stand alone mystery centering around a prosecutor, Olivia Randall, whose ex-boyfriend, Jack, calls her from the police station asking for legal help. Jack is a chronically sweet man, and Olivia expects his legal trouble to be some trivial mix-up. But no, Jack stands accused of triple homicide. The novel asks the question, did Olivia ever know Jack at all?
Many members of the audience seemed familiar with Burke’s previous novels, but some did not. Burke began the event by introducing herself and sharing her background. She was a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, and an avid reader of mysteries. She found herself skimming any scene featuring a prosecutor. She found them to be cardboard cutouts who never contributed to the mystery. This didn’t line up with how Burke experienced prosecutorial work. Being a prosecutor was fascinating, and so she decided to try her hand at writing a mystery novel of her own. (She has some advantages here. Her father is none other than crime novelist James Lee Burke.)
She opened with a joke. “I used to be a prosecutor, but now I’m a law professor and novelist,” Burke said. “I’ve gotten very good at enunciating when I say that. I once told a man at a dinner party that I used to be a prosti.... Needless to say, he misunderstood my background and found me a lot less interesting when I turned out to be a lawyer.” This much is certain, Burke is comfortable in front of a crowd, and she spent a solid twenty minutes talking about her background, both with the law and with writing. She then opened the floor for thirty minutes of Q & A, and everybody’s hands shot up. Some had questions about her writing process, and about her family.
“Would you ever collaborate with your father?” one man asked. “Not if we wanted to stay friends after,” she quipped.
After half an hour, she brought the Q & A to a close, though it felt as if one or two people might have had more questions. To me, this is a testament to her ability to work a room. There is nothing more painful than when somebody stands in front of a room and asks two, three, even four times, if anybody has any more questions. She left the audience wanting more.
I was in the minority last night, because I went into the event unfamiliar with Burke’s writing. This will not be the case for long. She was charming, and her description of The Ex had me headed to the register where I bought a copy for her to sign.