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Judgment CallsMissing Justice
Alafair Burke

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson

(June, 2004)

Alafair Burke recently joined the growing ranks of crime writers whose law degrees, and years of working in the legal system, add depth and credibility to their novels. Last year, she introduced us to her engaging Portland deputy D. A. heroine, Samantha Kincaid, in Judgment Calls (it's now available in paperback). A second in the series, Missing Justice, has just been released and brings back this lively protagonist for more drama in and out of the courtroom.

The author knows of what - and where - she writes, having herself worked as a deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon. In addition to penning further Samantha Kincaid episodes, Alafair Burke teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School, and lives in New York City. She also happens to be the daughter of acclaimed author James Lee Burke, well known for his immensely popular series starring ex-New Orleans cop David Robichaux, and former Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland.

Q: My favorite of James Lee Burke's characters, Dave Robicheaux, has an adopted daughter named Alafair. Is she at all like you?

A: I certainly hope not, at least not during that sullen adoloscent phase she had! Actually, a few of the details of Alafair's younger years were based on me, like her tennis shoes that had right and left written on them and her quacking Donald Duck hat. And, of course, we share a first name with my father's maternal grandmother's. More recently, in Jolie Blon's Bounce, Alafair R. is working on her first novel and is a freshman at Reed College, which is my alma mater. Those are the only similarities I can think of, but that doesn't stop people from asking me if my parents found me on an airplane or if I have a three legged pet racoon named Tripod. (No and no.)

Q: Did your father's success as a writer have anything to do with your own desire to write mysteries, and did you write as a child?

A: Certainly I was affected by having parents who were artistic. Watching my mother paint and my father write made it seem natural to take one's ideas and turn them into something concrete. But the joke in our family is that I actually started writing mysteries before my father did. He didn't start the Robicheaux series until I was in college, but I was always intrigued by mysteries. As a kid, I yearned to be the female Encyclopedia Brown and would tinker on my father's manual typewriter, cranking out page turners like Murder at the Roller Disco.

I turned to writing as an adult, though, in a roundabout way. I was still an avid reader of mysteries while I was working as a prosecutor at the District Attorney's Office in Portland, Oregon. I couldn't help but notice that I was surrounded by an atmosphere, character, cases, and dialogue that would make great crime fiction. When I left practice, I finally stopped saying "Someday I'll write that book." I took a summer off and wrote the first half of what eventually became Judgment Calls.

Q: In his biography of his father, Dune author Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert recalls 'talking story' with his dad. Do you and your father ever 'talk story' or comment on each other's manuscripts?

A: Nope. We both have very private writing processes. I don't show my work to anyone until it's essentially done, and, to my knowledge, he's got a similar practice. My entire family, though, loves to talk about crime. So we all tend to follow the big crime stories then talk about our amateur profiles and pet theories. Probably not normal family banter, but who needs normalcy, I suppose.

Q: The bar (no pun intended) seems to be continually rising for mystery authors. Most now come with a first career in some aspect of the law or law enforcement. In your case, did the desire to write pre-date the law career, or did it arise from your experiences as a lawyer?

A: It really did come from being a prosecutor. I learned at the D.A.'s Office that there is this world between the police precinct and the courtroom where incredibly important decisions are made about what to do when someone has committed a crime. What should the investigation look like? How should the arrest be made? Which charges should be filed? Should it be a death penalty case or not? Should there be a plea bargain? So much of the media's and pop culture's attention to criminal cases focuses on trials, but the real action takes place behind the scenes. That's the kind of stuff that I find most interesting and, at the same time, the least explored. (And, by the way, you did so intend that pun.)

Q: Did you read many legal mysteries as a deputy DA and, if so, which writers did you enjoy most?

A: I don't read a lot of what you might call "courtroom thrillers" because, to me, that's really an oxymoron. Trials, if depicted realistically, are pretty boring. I enjoy Linda Fairstein's work because it's not trial-oriented. Some of my favorite writers are Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, and Sue Grafton. Jim Swain is a newer writer whose books are fun and fresh. I can't name everyone, though, or we'd need a separate website. So many talented people are creating such great crime fiction, I can barely keep up with all of the reading I'd love to do.

Q: Samantha Kincaid is a feisty feminist and I especially enjoy her reactions to being patronized as a woman in the predominantly male law enforcement environment. How much do her musings reflect your own experiences?

A: Being a woman in a prosecutor's office wasn't always easy, and Samantha's difficulties certainly reflect that. But, five years after leaving Portland, most of my closest friends are still men and women I worked with at the D.A.'s Office. Samantha's depicted as a woman without those kinds of friendships at work. That's why she chooses so often to go it alone, usually to her detriment.

Q: Kincaid ends up doing quite a bit of investigation on her own, especially in Missing Justice. Does this mirror your reality, or is it poetic license, for the benefit of the plot?

A: To have a prosecutor go out on her own and conduct her own investigation is certainly not the norm. Samantha knows that what she's doing in Missing Justice is outside her role in the system, but she does it anyway. Part of what conflicts her is the tension between what she's supposed to be doing and what she thinks is the right thing to do.

Q: I've enjoyed the social commentary that's built into both episodes so far, e.g. about the stereotyping of blacks as criminals. Is its inclusion an important aspect of writing for you?

A: I don't think it's possible to tell a realistic story about the criminal justice system without at least touching on the problems that can potentially affect the system's fairness. Samantha's awareness of those problems is also an important part of her character. It affects the way she sees cops, other lawyers, and her own moral judgments.

Q: In Missing Justice, Samantha seems to be developing an interest in her new boss; are you in the process of setting up a romantic triangle with Sam, Russell Frist, and Detective Chuck Forbes?

A: I can't give something like that away! The Sam/Chuck romance is one of the best parts of the books.

Q: When can we expect the next Samantha Kincaid mystery? Can you tell us anything about it, and do you have any plans for another series/protagonist?

A: For now, I'm sticking with Samantha. I'm working on the third book, in which Samantha is prosecuting the murder of an investigative reporter.

I know I said I wouldn't reveal too much about her future love life, but I will tell you that she and Chuck decide to move things to a new level. Nothing's ever easy for Sam, though. In fact, if things start to seem too easy for Sam, maybe that's when I'll know it's time to start writing about another character.

Find out more about Alafair Burke, her Samantha Kincaid crime series, and her own favorites in mystery reading, at
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