Written by Alafair Burke — Even two decades later, New York criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall has never quite forgiven herself for the unnecessarily cruel way she broke up with her fiancé, Jack Harris. As Olivia narrates the story, we learn that nice-guy Jack had to negotiate some difficult emotional territory before their breakup, with his mother dying during his teen years and his father when they were in college. Then he lost his only brother in a tragic auto accident the night Jack and Olivia split. All this trauma landed him in a psychiatric hospital for a time.
Eventually, Jack found success as a best-selling novelist and on the family front with his wife Molly and teenage daughter Buckley. But that happiness was merely a respite. Three years before the novel begins, a mentally disturbed 15-year-old staged a shooting in Penn Station during peak commuting hours. Before killing himself, he murdered 13 people and injured many more. One of the dead was Molly Harris.
The boy was the son of prominent investment banker Malcolm Neeley, who’d refused to get the boy treatment. He didn’t want his son seen as ‘sick’. Worse, he had actively encouraged the boy’s interest in weapons and spent many hours at the shooting range with him. The outraged families of the victims, led by Jack, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Neeley, a suit that has been recently dismissed by the court.
The book opens with the transcript of a police station interview with Harris. He apparently was in the vicinity of a shooting that morning, and an NYPD detective is looking for information.
Boyle: Okay, I’ve turned on the machine, Mr. Harris. Just to make clear, are you here at the First Precinct voluntarily?” Then, “And you’re willing to speak to me of your own accord?”
You’ll know immediately that Jack has already made a big mistake. He’s talking to the police without a lawyer. Their flimsy excuse for taking him to the station for the interview, and the pretense of needing to put the interview on tape because they’re talking to so many people, are bright flashing neon letters saying, “You’re in the deep water now, Jack!”
This is an engaging way to begin the book because it tells you a lot about Jack as well as the trouble he’s likely in. The reason for the interview becomes clear near its ending. One of the three people killed in that morning’s shootings is Malcolm Neeley.
Olivia learns of these events when Jack’s daughter Buckley calls in a panic and insists she take over Jack’s defense. “It’s the least you can do after the way you treated him.” Partly out of her own guilt and partly because she can’t imagine Jack committing any crime remotely close to a triple murder, she does take on the case. She’s intelligent and hard-working, and, as a protagonist has some flaws, including a tendency to down too many martinis and/or sleep with whoever is handy. Jack is a little murkier. She finally realises he’s lying to her about some things, and she can’t pin down why.
One of her first challenges is trying to unravel the puzzling sequence of events that got Jack to the vicinity of the shootings in the first place and on camera there. It seems to be an elaborate ruse involving a woman, a book, and a picnic basket, with a big assist from social media. In her Internet research, especially, she’s aided by the office assistant Einer, a smart and savvy young man with a gift for sarcasm. Many of the other secondary characters, especially Charlotte and the prosecutor, Scott Temple, come across believably too.
The more Olivia learns, the more implausible Jack’s alibi seems. In the face of mounting evidence and the doubts about him among people whom she respects, she can’t help but start to wonder, is this the same man I knew two decades ago? Can you ever really know what someone else is capable of? These are not uncommon questions, and the final reveal is fairly familiar territory as well.
In The Ex, you see a civilised, realistic New York City – not the city of top-to-bottom corruption in Don Winslow’s summer hit, The Force, and not the city of off-kilter, magical realism in David Burr Gerrard’s risky novel, The Epiphany Machine. Burke’s is a city of private schools, functioning public services, trendy night spots, and Armani clothing.
On the short list for an Edgar Award in 2017, this is Alafair Burke’s 11th crime thriller. She is a professor of criminal law in New York, a former prosecutor and the daughter of acclaimed thriller writer James Lee Burke. Read about his latest here.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars