The Better Sister

Written by Alafair Burke — To understand for sure what author Alafair Burke intended with the title for her latest domestic crime thriller you might need her to define what she means by ‘better’. By the end of the story, you may be hard-pressed to judge whether super-successful women’s magazine editor Chloe Taylor or her former substance-abusing, child-endangering older sister Nicky is the better of the two. It’s an interesting question, but it isn’t one their husband Adam can answer, because he’s dead.

Yes, in an intriguing plot complication, both women were married to the same man but thankfully not at the same time. Nicky married him first, but her substance abuse and increasingly erratic behaviour finally propelled Adam to seek a divorce and custody of their son Ethan. Soon he moves to Manhattan where Chloe lives. She helps him get a job as a prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office, where he works happily and successfully for several years.

Initially after the move, Adam and Chloe are just good friends. Then they become more. A few years after they marry, she helps him get a much more lucrative job – a partnership at a white-shoe law firm that happens to represent her magazine. Chloe pulled those strings, and Adam hates his new job. There’s something wrong in their relationship, but you can’t quite put your finger on it… yet.

By now Ethan is 16, enrolled in an expensive private school, out of touch with Nicky. Adding a teenager to a plot is a sure-fire way to amp up the drama. In addition to the usual adolescent pitfalls, you’ll likely share the angst Chloe feels about which sister Ethan will end up with.

Chloe is a bit of a control freak and she needs her personal space. While she’s the first-person narrator of most chapters, she doesn’t reveal the cracks in her armour right away. She’s also a bit of a modern-day hero, using her magazine to highlight the sexual abuse and harassment of everyday women, #ThemToo, not just the media darlings. Misogynistic trolls on Twitter make Chloe a target and, as in real life, it’s hard to know how serious their threats are. By including their tweets, which Chloe reads obsessively, Burke establishes a very contemporary and uneasy backdrop to Chloe’s situation.

The night after Chloe wins a prestigious media award, her former boss gives an after-party in her honour in the Hamptons. Chloe goes alone because Adam prefers to skip it and Ethan is staying overnight with a friend. Late that night when Chloe arrives home, Adam has been murdered.

Nicky arrives in Manhattan for the funeral and to reconnect with her son. She declines the offer to stay in a hotel and takes up residence in Chloe’s home office. You can feel Chloe gritting her teeth at losing her private space.

These temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. She’ll never come close to her little sister’s income, but she’s pulled herself together. Of the two, you may find yourself sympathetic to Nicky more than Chloe; she’s so genuine, whereas Chloe is too perfect, or rather, working too hard to maintain the mask of perfection. It’s an interesting and unexpected rebalancing of the scales of likability.

The Suffolk County police detectives are not the most imaginative and clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realise Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death their laser-like focus turns to him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia makes it clear she’s in charge. Now the three of them are circling in an entertaining dance.

Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few ‘I didn’t see that coming’ surprises too. It must have been fun for Burke to imagine how such a situation would play out from behind the defense table.

All told, this is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.

See Alafair Burke’s earlier book, The Ex, which also features Olivia Randall, or Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal.

Faber & Faber
Print/Kindle/iBook
£8.99

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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