“City of Fear” Alafair Burke (Harper Collins) – novel review

City of Fear

“City of Fear” was called “Angel’s Tip” in the US after the favourite drink of a student on a break in Manhattan whose body is found by detective Ellie Hatcher on her morning run.  The student has been strangled and her hair snipped off by the murderer presumably as a souvenir.

I warmed to Ellie Hatcher.  She’s bright, dedicated to all aspects of her job from chasing suspects down alleyways to researching cold cases, but is also recognisably human.  She figures the initial suspect is guilty of obstructing justice and possibly bribery, but not murder, however, hangs back until she can put together some evidence for her theory.  She understands her place in the hierarchy – somewhere near the bottom – but doesn’t let it intimidate her.

Alafair Burke is a fan of her father, James Lee Burke, and it’s fair to say that writing a series about a detective would draw inevitable comparisons, but Alafair’s drawing on her experience as deputy district attorney.  She’s picked up her father’s sense of character – Ellie is fully rounded and believable with none of the annoying quirks that some lesser writers think is a substitute for characterisation – and an appreciate of the limits detectives are forever up against.  The unco-operative public, suspects that bargain to get themselves off while someone else gets murdered, the frustrations of politics and tough decisions on the allocation of finite resources in the police department.  What she’s not quite mastered yet (this is only the second outing for Ellie Hatcher) is the sense of place.  Her New York and plot has the pace of a densely-populated city that never sleeps, but at times I could be reading a map.  When Ellie is driven to the DA’s office, I get a list of buildings and the problems of finding a parking space but not whether the road is smooth or rough or the sense it’s jam-packed with traffic.

It’s soon clear, Ellie Hatcher and partner J J Rogan have a serial killer on their hands, political pressure to solve the murders yesterday and journalists who know more than they should to deal with.  That their Lieutenant failed to make a link between the angel tip drinker and a previous case of his is a complication they could do without.  Alafair Burke maintains the pace and tension skilfully.

If I had a vote, I’d have gone for the original “Angel’s Tip” title.  “City of Fear” is too vague and doesn’t work as the city isn’t in fear, it’s too busy, and the fear is the all-too-familiar fear foisted on woman balancing how much they have to drink, what time they leave a night club and whether they are safer with a cab or the man they met earlier that night.  “City of Fear” is too vague, overblown and in direct contrast to the control and poise of the writing within.

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