Alafair Burke Talks About True Crime and Crime Fiction

17 Jun

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.

DPL: How much of the real story did you use and how much of Angel’s Tip was your own imagination?

AB: It’s almost all imagination.  What I borrowed from reality is an unfortunately common situation: a woman  feeling invulnerable because of a combination of youth, alcohol, and the fantasy nature of her surroundings.  For Natalee Holloway, it was Aruba.  For my fictional character, like Imette St. Guillen and Jennifer Moore, it’s the nightlife of Manhattan.  From there, I started asking myself, “What if?”  The “What if?” that finally grabbed me was: What if a killer realized that these kinds of cases were frequent and predictable enough to provide cover for a string of murders?
The one fact specific to the St. Guillen case that I used was the cutting off of her hair.   Even alongside all of the horrible things that were done to her, the fact that he hacked her hair off somehow made the violence seem more personal.  I also have Detective Ellie Hatcher, a John Jay alum herself, refer to the actual case.  And in the author’s notes, I discuss the connection between Angel’s Tip and some of these other cases.

DPL: Have you used other cases as starting points of any of your other novels?

AB: My first book, Judgment Calls, was based on two cases I worked on at the District Attorney’s Office.  One was the Happy Face Killer case, a real-life creepy serial killer case, complete with letters to the newspaper and all.
What’s strange is that, more frequently, I’ll start a book based on a fictional premise, and then after I’ve finished it, I’ll see a story in the news that is eerily similar.  I started Dead Connection after I met my husband on  In what I thought was one of my crazier plot lines, I imagined a serial killer preying on his victims through online dating.  What fascinated me about the possibility was the combination of complete anonymity online with the inherent desire of people on those sites to believe they’ve found their soul mate.  Well, apparently I wasn’t the only person to realize the dangerousness of this combination.  Just as I finished the book, a man was arrested in Philadelphia for making up fake profiles on and attacking the women he eventually met.
Then after I started Angel’s Tip, the NYPD announced that they believed the same assailant had targeted multiple women leaving a club called The Box.  Just after I turned in my new book, 212, Boston police announced they were looking for the so-called Craig’s List Killer.  Well, it turns out that 212 is about a woman with a secret life as an escort on Craig’s List.  Maybe in my next book I should have a law professor slash crime writer win the lottery.

DPL: As a lawyer, you have a keen sense of the legal issues in your crime stories, but what about forensic issues? Do you employ much forensics in your stories? Any favorite forensic techniques that you’ve used in a story? Any favorite research sites?

AB: I’m a lazy researcher.  I figure I can pepper my books with plenty of quotidian details from the lives of police and prosecutors.  I leave the forensics to others.  Even when I have my characters focus on a body, it’s not usually about the science, but on a detail that says something about the person in life.  A heart-shaped necklace on a college student, for example, says she probably had a boyfriend.  I do know from the District Attorney’s Office a lot of the basic science, such as fingerprint points or types of DNA tests.
When I’ve needed more complicated information, I’ve called the M.E. back in Oregon where I was a prosecutor.  For my second book, Missing Justice, I lost track of the number of questions I had for him because the big “a-ha” moment turned on an autopsy detail.   I also have a friend here in NYC who’s a senior pathologist at the M.E.

DPL: I know the hardback of Angel’s Tip came out last year, but the paperback was recently released. Can we expect to see you doing any signings? What about conferences? Any big ones coming up for you?

AB: I’m  looking forward to Thrillerfest in New York next month.  My panel is on Friday, July 10, at 9 am, with a signing to follow.  Then I’ll be doing a group signing that night from 5:30-7:30 at Mysterious Bookshop at 58 Warren Street.  I’m also on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter and really enjoy getting to know readers online.

DPL: When can we expect your next novel? Title?

AB: My new book is called 212. It’s an Ellie Hatcher novel and will be out in spring 2010.

DPL: Thanks for being with us today.

Visit Alafair’s Website

1 Comment

Posted by on June 17, 2009 in Interesting Cases, Interviews, Writing


One response to “Alafair Burke Talks About True Crime and Crime Fiction

  1. Alafair Burke

    June 17, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks again for the chance to talk about my work here. And of course I should have added that this is a great site for picking up some fresh forensic details!



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