The Ex by Alafair Burke

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Reviewed by Ann

How well does one human being ever really know another? This is the question that criminal defence lawyer Olivia Randall is forced to ask as she attempts to represent her former fiancé, Jack Harris, in respect of a charge of triple murder. Called in by Jack’s frantic teenaged daughter Buckley, after her father has been taken for questioning by the New York Police, Olivia finds herself facing, for the first time in over twenty years, the man with whom she shared her life both during their time at college and over the course of her legal training. As far as Olivia is concerned, as far as everyone who knew them is concerned, when the break-up came she was the heartless villain responsible and Jack, kind, patient, dependable Jack, was the victim. More recently, it is the world at large that has recognised him as a victim, after his wife, Molly, was among those killed in what was to become known as the Penn Station Massacre: thirteen people killed by a fifteen year old boy, brandishing three semiautomatic weapons that he had been encouraged to master by his father as an alternative way of tackling his son’s acknowledged mental instability. Consequently, when Olivia agrees to take on Jack’s defence her only thought is how she is going to present the evidence that will allow the court to recognise this man’s undoubted innocence, because no one is more aware than she of the fact that when Jack is traumatised in any way the only person he goes on to injure is himself. It is not possible that Jack is behind these three latest murders.

Or is it? Incriminating facts, difficult to explain away, begin to surface. One of those murdered turns out to be Malcolm Neeley, the father of Molly’s killer, Todd. What is more, Jack and several other relatives of Todd’s victims have just had a case against Malcolm Neeley citing his culpability in his son’s actions, thrown out of court. Jack’s story as to why he was in the vicinity of the killings at the precise time they occurred borders on the bizarre. And then there are GSR results which look damaging, suspicious e-mails and the possibility of a mysterious lover. As the case progresses Olivia has to face the fact that her ex is lying to her and is forced to ask if she ever really knew Jack Harris at all.

When I began this novel my first thought was that it was going to be an exploration of the motivation behind those multiple gun atrocities which have become all too common in American life, and to some extent that is the case. However, as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Burke is more concerned with two other aspects of such occurrences: their aftermath, the longterm consequences for all those involved, and more especially, I think, why so often the perpetrator is still in their teens or early twenties. There are several incidences of characters who have been seriously damaged as children by events in their upbringing. The most obvious is Todd Neeley, who, having been traumatised by his mother’s suicide, is then failed by his father when Malcolm refuses to acknowledge his son’s resulting health problems. The court case against Mr Neeley may have been thrown out on a technicality but no one in the book ever questions the fact that had he been less concerned with his own image things might have worked out very differently. Gradually, however, we begin to realise that Olivia too has been badly scarred by childhood experience. Her back story is revealed bit by bit as the narrative progresses and the reasons behind her rejection of Jack, as well as her continuing inability in adulthood to maintain a healthy personal relationship, slowly become apparent. As her history shows, the injuries that parents can inflict on their children are not always physical. Indeed, it is the mental trauma, carried for years, or in some instances for decades, that is most likely to lead to either personal or possibly public acts of annihilation. In many respects this is a novel about the burden of misplaced guilt that individuals can carry with them and the ways in which that guilt can then twist people’s interpretation of the world around them and dictate their subsequent actions.

Eighteen months ago, when I reviewed All Day and a Night, Burke’s most recent novel in her Ellie Hatcher series, I said that while it was a rattling good police procedural I couldn’t really call it great literature. The Ex, however, provides continuing evidence that Burke is improving both stylistically and in terms of story-telling with every novel she writes and this is a book that deserves attention not only for its entertainment value but also for the quality of the writing. I won’t be at all surprised to see it feature in at least the long lists for the major crime fiction awards and will definitely be reading whatever the author publishes next.

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Ann blogs at Café Society

Alafair Burke, the Ex (Faber and Faber, 2016). 978-0571328154, 372pp., paperback.

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