Judgement Calls by Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is the daughter of the well known crime writer James Lee Burke. I am sure at times she must get tired of constantly being referenced in terms of her father, but to be fair, at least a portion of the buzz surrounding her becoming a novelist is connected to her dad’s career. In my case, however, it really means very little since I haven’t read any books by her father and know next to nothing about him.

Ms. Burke, however, is clearly not turning to writing because she has nothing better to do. A former deputy district attorney with a law degree from Stanford, Burke teaches criminal law at Hofstra University. Given her background and her father’s career it is really not surprising that she wanted to try her hand at writing.

Her debut novel Judgement Calls, recently released in paperback, centers around Samantha Kincaid a fictional deputy district attorney in Portland Oregon. Kincaid works in the Drug and Vice Division and try’s not to become cynical while constantly working with the seamy underbelly of the naturally beautiful pacific northwest. Kincaid is a stubborn idealist who bypassed opportunities to make a lot of money working at corporate law firms shuffling papers to be a prosecutor. Recently divorced – she dumped her husband, aka Shoe Boy, after finding him having sex with one of his Nike clients on the dining room table – her job is her life for the most part. It is this stubborn idealism – softened with a sense of humor – that drives her and the book.

The plot centers around the case of Kendra Martin; a thirteen year old runaway who was drugged, violently assaulted and left for dead. Kincaid is convinced by the police officers working on the case to press for attempted murder instead of letting it drop to assault. By relentlessly attempting to get to the bottom of the case, Kincaid finds herself butting heads with practically everyone around her: her boss the District Attorney, her sometimes boyfriend and police officer Chuck Forbes, and even her best friend. More troubling is the fact that her case seems to be unraveling and getting mixed up in a controversial death penalty case that involves Chuck and a potential serial killer on the loose.

In Kincaid Burke has created an interesting character. Kincaid is not only an ambitious and talented lawyer is also a witty and personable character. Her determination drives the plot – and allows Burke to introduce her own first hand knowledge of the inner workings of the judicial system- but her personality gives it a certain flare. Kincaid is a sort of post-feminist character. She is fiercely independent and must constantly fight the callous vulgarity and arrogance of the men she works with, but she also gets pulled into complex relationship with her high school sweetheart. She indulges in junk food but is an obsessive runner. She has ambition and drive but she also realizes, if occasionally too late, that her stubbornness and independence gets her into trouble.

I don’t want to over analyze this book, however, as it is mostly just an entertaining mystery/legal thriller. The plot is interesting enough to keep you guessing – even if the legal details occasionally get over-played and little dry – and the characters seem real. The writing is solid but still a little unsure; the connection between the various sub-plots seemed forced and disjointed at times for example.

Caveats aside, Burke is a promising new writer and Samantha Kincaid is a likable and interesting character. Burke brings a unique voice to the genre and her books bring the legal system to light in interesting ways. The public will be looking for more Burke and Kincaid in the future.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).