Alafair Burke has been fascinated with crime for many years, beginning with her childhood home in Wichita, Kansas, where the BTK killer made headlines, through her experiences as a well-respected prosecutor, and perhaps a bit of curiosity for all things criminal inherited from her father, James Lee Burke, a recipient of this year’s Edgar Grand Master Award. This fascination and heritage led her from the courtroom to crime fiction. She writes two wonderful series characters: NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid. Her latest book, Angel’s Tip, released last year in hardback, has just been released in paperback. Her next book, 212, will be out Spring, 2010.
DPL: Writers often find inspiration in real-life stories and that was the case with Angel’s Tip where you used the murder of Imette St. Guillen by Darryl Littlejohn as a springboard. What circumstance or character from that case grabbed your attention?
AB: St. Guillen was a John Jay graduate student who was murdered by a Soho bartender. She’d originally been out celebrating her upcoming birthday with a friend, but when her friend wanted to go home, she stayed behind to have one last drink on her own. Her body was found off the Belt Parkway. The happened in February 2006, when Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba was still in the news. The women probably had little in common in life, but the similarities in the circumstances of their deaths had me thinking about so many nights when I was a younger woman. Sometimes I was the one who’d had a few too many drinks and didn’t want to leave. Other times I was the girl begging her friend to get in the car and come home. I realized how lucky my friends and I had been on every one of those nights.
I was thinking about how I might be able to tap into what I thought might be a shared experience, at least among women, when the New York media reported that it had happened again. A New Jersey high school student named Jennifer Moore was raped and murdered after her car was impounded while she was clubbing in Chelsea and she found herself wandering alone on the West Side Highway. I knew I had the set-up for a good novel. Those clubs in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District seem like a slice of heaven when you’re getting past the red velvet rope and slipping into a VIP Lounge, but when the clubs close and a girl is walking by herself at four in the morning, New York’s a different kind of place.
DPL: Some writers say that they use real life cases as an inspiration for a story but that they do not do in depth research for fear that knowing too much or becoming too attached to the story will stifle their creativity. Did you find that a problem?
AB: I did not immerse myself in the details of any of the cases I had in mind, but of course the media coverage was thorough, and I read almost all of it. A finished book is about a year of work for me, so by the time I’ve got the story down well enough to be writing, I have fictionalized the hell out of it.