The Ex: A Novel

  • By Alafair Burke
  • Harper
  • 304 pp.

Can a savvy defense lawyer exonerate her former fiancé accused of murder?

The Ex: A Novel

Olivia Randall, the first-person narrator of Alafair Burke’s latest mystery, The Ex, is a fast-talking New York City criminal-defense lawyer. She feels compelled to take the case of Jack Harris, her fiancé from 20 years ago, who is accused of shooting three people — one of whom he had threatened — in a park on a Sunday morning.

The main plot follows Olivia’s efforts to build a case for Jack’s innocence. The first step is to untangle his complicated explanation of why he was near the site of the shooting. Later, she pursues evidence that there might be another shooter or another main target. Olivia’s confidence in Jack wavers, returns, and wavers again as she leads the reader through a well-structured web of clues and alternative theories.

Olivia’s professional persona is tough. She engages in sharp banter with police detectives and prosecutors and is capable enough to risk questionable legal maneuvers, but she can also adopt a mild manner to coax information from a witness. Her voice as narrator is believable. She is an individual but also a type, the hard-boiled female detective or lawyer familiar to mystery readers.

Burke knows how to control suspense and add surprises that are not manipulative but arise from what is already known. At the denouement, new facts, appropriately hinted at earlier, change the whole picture. She adds a wrenching final turn to Jack’s story, unforeseen but plausible, and, at the very end, a turn to Olivia’s story. The Ex satisfies as a mystery or legal thriller.

Burke writes well. The language throughout is clear and only calls attention to itself to reflect the urbane world of Olivia and her friends and to add humor. Two examples: Olivia terms the tangled state of the case at one point a “clusterfuck”; and she refers to her own habitual expression as “RBF — resting bitch face.”

Burke shows a playful side, slipping in funny lines as well as sly remarks about books and television shows that might be seen as indirect references to her own work. A book called Eight Days to Die, evidently a suspense story, is important to Jack’s alibi. He describes it as “one of those clean, simple novels that proves heartbreaking stories can be life affirming.”

Olivia mentions Viola Davis, who plays an aggressive defense attorney on television, and Law & Order, suggesting that Olivia sees herself as the star of a comparable drama. Burke seems to be poking gentle fun at her protagonist and her own genre.

The main weakness of the book is the soap-opera-like backstory. Olivia and Jack’s lives contain much tragedy. Without identifying to which character each applies, traumas from decades earlier include: a battered mother and a mean father; a mother dead of cancer; a father dead of a heart attack; a two-timing fiancée; a brother dead in a car accident; and a year in a psychiatric hospital. More recent years bring a wife killed in a mass shooting at Penn Station; a mistress; a blackmailer; and a motherless teenage daughter.

If that’s not enough, the family of the man Jack is accused of targeting has experienced a mother’s suicide, a son who was the Penn Station killer, another son who threatened to kill his father, and a nasty, domineering father. Whew!

Burke manages all this pretty well, but a reader might wonder why so much background melodrama is needed. The only scenes that drag are the ones in which Olivia broods on the past, feeling sorry for Jack and guilty for how she treated him. Olivia’s thoughts about the legal case are strong and interesting, but the repeated passages in which she bemoans her past create impatience and a sense of confinement.

The Ex appears to be written to attract two audiences: mystery lovers and chick-lit readers. Olivia is a prime example of a chick-lit heroine: a strong, well-educated, well-dressed, attractive forty-something who is professionally successful but dwells on the problems of her love life. Although the story is serious, Burke is unafraid of introducing a bit of self-mockery here, too:

After sorting through romantic emails that might exonerate Jack, Olivia’s assistant, Einer, says he is getting diabetes — meaning they are too sugary for him. Olivia agrees. One night while Olivia is drinking at the bar owned by her best friend, Melissa, and lamenting her love life, Melissa points out that their conversations since Jack’s arrest wouldn’t pass the “Bechdel test.” A conversation that does pass is one that’s about something other than a man. 

Alafair Burke is a former prosecutor turned criminal law professor who has written 10 previous mysteries. In addition, she has recently co-authored two others with Mary Higgins Clark, the grande dame of sudsy mysteries.

The publisher’s promotional materials for The Ex claim this novel is like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Don’t believe it. The Ex is more deserving of respect than either of them.

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, grows native plants, and hopes for snow. She lives in suburban Maryland with her husband.

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