Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: THE EX

THE EX by Alafair Burke (Harper, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Olivia Randall is a top New York City lawyer who finds herself defending her former fiancĂ© – a man whose heart she broke twenty years before – when he’s accused of triple murder and his daughter begs Olivia to help. But while Olivia can’t believe the Jack Harris she knew would kill anyone, doubts flicker as all the evidence begins to mount.  

Alafair Burke crafts a good set-up and delivers an engaging, smoothly told and slickly plotted tale in this courtroom thriller that is a little more ‘did he do it, he couldn’t have dunit, could he?’ than whodunit. And it is that initial hook and subsequent propulsive narrative, complete with a few twists, that is the greatest strength of The Ex, a standalone.

Olivia Randall is a hot-shot defense lawyer with plenty of guilt about youthful misdeeds. A desperate phone call from a teenage girl threatens to bring some of that past to the surface, while also providing a chance for some measure of redemption. The girl is the daughter of Jack Harris, Oivia’s former fiancĂ© whose heart she broke in a cruel way twenty years before. Now a successful novelist, Jack has been arrested for a triple homicide. One of the victims is the father of a teenage gunman who slaughtered several people, including Jack’s wife, three years before. 

Many people blamed the father for his disturbed son’s actions, to the extent of suing in court, with Jack the media-chosen face of the aggrieved parties. So when the father is one of three people gunned down in a New York park, and Jack is spotted nearby, the police quickly put two and two together. But have they got the right killer? 

Olivia can’t believe the man she knew, an almost too-kind and mild soul, could ever kill anyone. As she’s drawn into the case by Jack’s desperate daughter, she’s faced with mounting evidence of Jack’s guilt. He says he was in the park to meet a fascinating woman he’d seen in passing while out for a run by the Hudson River, then chatted to online and arranged a date with after a friend had posted on social media about their chance encounter. She’s been barefoot in a party dress, drinking champagne and reading Jack’s favorite novel. But the woman never showed for their arranged date, leaving Jack wandering the park, and she doesn’t seem to be coming forward now to verify Jack’s story. 

Is someone setting Jack up as the fall guy, or is Olivia’s faith in the ‘nice guy’ she once knew more about her own guilt? How much do people change – and more importantly, how well do we ever really know them in the first place?

Alafair Burke does a really fine job creating an “I want to know what happens” narrative drive in The Ex. There are plenty of hooks and red herrings, and I enjoyed the parry and thrust between the cops and prosecutors and defense team. Much of the tale is engaging, and interesting. Some readers may struggle with the characters. Even the ‘heroes’ are pretty dislikable in a self-absorbed, narcissistic, or whiny woe-is-me way. For me, the hook and narrative drive kept the pages whirring even though I failed to really connect with any of the characters. They were interesting moving pieces, and I sort of felt like I was a semi-fascinated observer rather than someone fully invested. 

Overall, The Ex delivers a slickly told tale that is worth a read, with plenty of interesting reveals and wee twists. 

Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime writing at literary festivals and on national radio, is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award, and editor of Crime Watch: You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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