Wednesday, June 8, 2011

212 by Alafair Burke

Title: 212
Author: Alafair Burke
ISBN: 978-0061561320
Pages: 368
Release Date: June 7, 2011
Publisher: Harper Collins Paperbacks
Genre: Crime Fiction
Rating: 2.0 out of 5

Book summary: In New York City, nights are dangerous. Days are numbered.
A celebrity mogul’s bodyguard is slain in his boss’s luxurious penthouse at an exclusive Manhattan address. At NYU, a sophomore is menaced on the Internet, stalked, and killed. Phone records reveal a link between the NYU student and a murdered real estate agent who was living a dangerous double life. Detectives then learn that the dead real estate agent shared a secret connection to the same celebrity mogul who’s bodyguard was murdered…

These cases, equally sordid and shocking, end up falling to NYPD homicide detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner—who soon find out that this is just the tip of a terrifying iceberg.

My Thoughts: I enjoy crime fiction though I don't read the genre as often as I once did. I'm always looking for good thrillers. I was intrigued by 212 because author Alafair Burke, in addition to being the daughter of a well-known, prolific mystery author, was a prosecutor and now teaches criminal law at Hofstra University. Reading the summary I discovered 212 (a) is set in New York City; (b) the investigation is headed by a female homicide detective; and, last but not least, (c) includes elements similar to recent current events. I was intrigued enough to read this crime fiction.

Detective Ellie Hatcher is young, smart and despite being a little hot-tempered, very good at her job. She is the main character in the third-person narrated 212. I know from experience it's unusual and inspiring to find such a young female detective heading up homicide investigations. The author emphasizes Hatcher's youth much more than her sex. Over all, Alafair Burke does a good job of bringing Ellie Hatcher to life. In one early scene, Ellie is questioning a wealthy, powerful business man about a murder. It's here the author crafts some of Hatcher's more human qualities as we can't help but relate to her when her professional veneer disappears in the face of the man's rudeness. Hatcher can't help but let her anger and irritation show. Similarly, when Ellie tells two parents their daughter has been murdered, Burke makes us focus on Ellie's compassion. As a result, we see even more realistic human qualities in Burke, making her feel alive.

When Ellie is away from the job and teasing her brother, Jess, (currently sleeping on her apartment sofa) or encouraging him, in a motherly way, to figure out his life, we see another side of Ellie: as a caring sister. Though it may not be a specifically universal situation, it is universally relatable. Yet another facet Burke has added to Detective Ellie Hatcher, making her all the more real and three-dimensional.

212 is very much a modern day crime fiction story. The internet is a handy tool in the investigation, providing vital information quickly. Example: Detective Hatcher uses Google to help her locate a missing woman in Baltimore. Cell phones are not only constantly used but tweeting is a ubiquitous form of communication, especially between Ellie and Jess. The locks on some apartment and hotel doors require codes or cards instead of keys. Burke, inspired by recent current events such as The Craig's List Killer and political sex scandals, uses elements of these incidents in her story but with ingenuity and creativity, makes them her own.

The book is set in New York City, and I enjoyed reading about the different establishments the detectives frequented during the investigation. There was some personal identification reading about the bars and restaurants Ellie visited with Jess and ADA Max, her boyfriend. Unfortunately, this personal knowledge became a double edged sword. As much as I enjoyed being able to personally relate to many of the areas in general and some establishments in particular, this same knowledge also served to alert me something wasn't right. From there, things went downhill.

Most chapters are only a few pages and at the beginning of each, we're told the time and, if applicable, a new day and the date. About halfway through the book, in the chapter titled '1:45 am', Detective Hatcher thinks " had been only fifteen hours since she'd emerged from this same elevator earlier that morning to see the body of Megan Gunther being wheeled from the building.". I felt like I'd hit a brick wall because this line stopped my reading dead in its tracks. It felt to me like quite a bit had happened - too much - since Detective Hatcher saw Megan Gunther's body.

In the interest of full disclosure, the fact that I grew up on Long Island and lived and worked in NYC when I was a prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA's Office, definitely gave me a well-informed viewpoint. So I know the places Burke's writing about and how long it generally takes to get from point A to point B in and around NYC. As such, I also know from first-hand experience the first 24-hours following a murder can be the most important in terms of gathering evidence and the police try to get a lot done very quickly. Still, something felt off so I decided to retrace my steps in the book. I discovered that the time-lines in several chapters just don't work. Maybe this is being picayune, maybe somebody living away from NYC wouldn't pick up on the time-line issues. I might agree to that except other problems started to crop up.

Detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner, JJ Rogan, must be two of the luckiest detectives around! Here are just two examples: first, all of their witnesses are available the first time they visit to interview them. Second, when Detective Hatcher needs to speak to a witness who's a DJ, not only does Jess know of him and about him, he's able to tell her where the DJ is working. Ellie and Jess arrive at the bar at 6:30 pm. Early hour for a DJ, but, of course, the DJ is already there, playing! Having Jess around turns out to be fortuitous in other ways, as well. In fact, Jess' assistance is integral. He introduces Detective Hatcher to a witness who willingly assists her in apprehending a business man with vital information. This man's nieces work in his business. When he refuses to cooperate and turn over his business records, his sister, the mother of the nieces, shows up at the precinct, speaks with him and voila! the detectives can have whatever they want!

These are just a smattering of coincidences and lucky occurrences that make this investigation move along quickly and smoothly for the detectives. Any of these incidences, individually, or two, maybe three, might reasonably be expected to occur during the course of a long investigation. But too many things fall into place to favor the detectives as to border on the supernatural, making the crimes and the subsequent investigation fail to ring true. The readers are expected to suspend their belief in reality and dispense with common sense far too often to give this particular story, as it unfolds, any credence. Finally, as the investigation is coming to a close and the perpetrator(s) are close to being caught, Burke throws in an unexpected twist. I would have really enjoyed this surprise if, in fact, it had been a surprise. However, I figured it out earlier in the story. Detective Hatcher drops one or two hints regarding this aspect of the case that were too obvious.

There were some opportunities for Burke to play to her strengths, specifically, character development. Unfortunately, Detective Hatcher is the only one of the individuals we really get to know. Had Burke applied her considerable talent for creating realistic characters to some others in her book, it may have broken free of the path of the formulaic detective novel filled with disposable characters. That's not to say Burke's writing isn't compelling in spots. She does keep the story moving quickly, but it seemed to me too much of it was "forced". Had there been a few more realistic characters and a few more realistic scenarios, perhaps the plot itself wouldn't have seemed so reliant on coincidence and luck. Good detectives, just like good athletes, for example, make their own luck. Detective Hatcher and her partner, in 212, seem to rely on Burke to provide their luck for them which she does in spades.

Alafair Burke has an interesting, fun website where she's currently hosting the 2011 Duffer Awards.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for a copy of 212 and the opportunity to read and review this book.


  1. I am not sure that this is a book for me, as I tend to avoid books in this genre. It does sound as if the book has a lot going for it though, and if I was the type of reader to go for thrillers and crime fiction I would definitely go for this one. I am glad to hear that you mostly liked it!

  2. Fabulous review -- you cracked me up at your 'investigation'! ;) Timeline stuff makes me bonkers, as do too many coincidences/good hands dealt by fate. I'm not crazy about mysteries these days (I got thru phases where they're all I want or nothing at all) so I might pass for now -- I'll be curious to see if Burke's talents sharpen as she continues to write.

  3. I don't usually read these types of books, but I appreciate your very detailed review! :)

  4. This sounds interesting. I probably wouldn't notice the timeframe issues, so I might enjoy this more than you did.

  5. Amy this sounds like a different book from your usual reading.

  6. I like reading books set in place I'm familiar with - it's fun to see what the author gets right or wrong. It's too bad that this book didn't turn out to be a better fit for you, since it has such promise.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. Hopefully your next read will be a better one for you.

  7. Great review Amy; your observations relative to your personal work experience made your review particularly enjoyable.

    I tend to get easily distracted by inconsistencies in things like timeframes or plot points, so I can see this type of thing might detract from your overall feeling about the book.

  8. I love how you wrote this review. I thought it was well-balanced and I enjoyed that you shared with us your own unique viewpoint into why this book started to go wrong with you. It is a double-edged sword when you know a lot about a topic being covered in a book ... it makes the mistakes and missteps that much more glaring and obvious and annoying. Well done.