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city of lies
28 february 2014
I'd been wanting to read a detective novel by rising star Alafair Burke for some time. I found City of Lies in a used-book store, taking an even less systematic approach to an existing fiction series than usual. It's the British edition of a novel second in its series to be published there and third here, and in America is called 212, a title deemed unintelligible to cross-pond readers.
"212" is of course the old original area code for New York City, the one that Seinfeld characters waited for people to die so they could inherit. (The closest I ever got to the heart of American culture was when I briefly had an office phone with a 212 area code. Don't tell anybody it was actually in the Bronx.) Nobody kills for 212 anymore, now that area code is just another three numbers and any combination could be calling you from anywhere. But the digits have residual chic: enough that the setting of the first murder in the novel, at a fancy street address that starts with 212, is plausible.
Detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner J.J. Rogan get nowhere fast when they try to find the killer: they're blocked by the power of the man who owns the apartment where it happened. Sam Sparks isn't the gunman: he has a perfect alibi. But billionaire real-estate developers don't do their own murders. They hire hitmen, and obstruct justice afterwards.
Or at least they do so in detective novels, and we're in familiar territory here. The crime-scene investigators, the lieutenant that our heroes don't know if they can trust. The crooked judge, who is not as crooked, or in quite the same way, as Ellie and J.J. suspect. The call girls, the noisome computer whizzes, the assistant DA with the killer smile and the softspoken sexual confidence who just might be the one for Ellie to trust in love.
It seems stupid to want to call a Krimi full of torture murders light and deft, but City of Lies / 212 is a book without serious shadows. Not only does everything have a logical explanation and a clear motive, but even the bad guys have their sympathetic side: they may be violent men, but forces in their lives drive them to that violence, and Burke gets us to understand and acknowledge those forces. Everybody's rational; even when strung out they're whole, self-actualized people; everybody's thinking straight when they make even their worse decisions.
Fiction like this may not be the most realistic, even when its details are quite verisimilar. (One of the things I like best about the novel is its intricately detailed New York, evoked down to the block.) But even given its stylized surfaces, Burke's novel tells a clean suspenseful story, and gets the reader thinking about human nature in an optimistic way as it cleans up the cases in its murder books.
Burke, Alafair. City of Lies.  London: Avon [HarperCollins], 2010.