The much put-upon heroine of Alafair Burke’s seventh novel is named Alice, and I take that as a nod to Lewis Carroll, because Burke’s Alice also tumbles down a rabbit hole into a bizarre world of deception and danger, a world where almost nothing is what it seems.
This Alice’s wonderland is modern-day Manhattan, however, and Burke makes her the victim of a fiendish conspiracy that gentle Lewis Carroll could never have imagined. Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps, but not Carroll.
Alice Humphrey, an attractive woman in her 30s, is divorced, well-educated and at loose ends. Although her father is an Oscar-winning film director — one as well-known for his extramarital affairs as for his movies — Alice has drifted from job to job and, when we meet her, has been out of work for months. Then one night at an art exhibit, she meets a smooth-talking fellow called Drew Campbell, who declares that she would be perfect to operate an art gallery that a rich, anonymous client of his will soon open. The offer seems too good to be true — and of course it is — but she eagerly leaps into the darkness. The gallery, in the trendy Meatpacking District, opens with an exhibit of semi-pornographic photographs. Soon, Drew Campbell (which wasn’t his real name) is dead, and the police suspect Alice of killing him.
An amazing amount of evidence points to her guilt, including a probably faked photograph, documents with her name on them and gunshot residue on a pair of her gloves. Facing arrest, Alice flees the police, determined to prove her innocence. As all this unfolds, so do two subplots. In one, an FBI agent named Hank Beckman is shadowing a man who has somehow harmed his sister. In another, a high school girl vanishes after a popular boy persuades her to send him a nude picture of herself. In time, both stories merge with Alice’s.
The chief interest of this complex and mostly improbable tale lies in trying to figure out who is behind the conspiracy to destroy Alice. There is no shortage of suspects: the domineering father from whom she’s semi-estranged; her junkie brother; her father’s lawyer; her on-and-off boyfriend; the new female friend she met at the gym; a sidewalk evangelist who protests the alleged porn in Alice’s gallery; even good-guy Hank, the FBI agent who claims to be helping her prove her innocence. (For the record, I guessed the chief villain about two-thirds of the way through the book.)
Burke fills her novel with characters and events borrowed from the headlines. There’s high school sexting and bullying. Alice’s movie-director father is charged with having raped a girl of 14, suggesting the Roman Polanski case. The publicity-seeking preacher and his followers echo those creeps who demonstrate near military funerals. The allegedly pornographic photos recall charges once leveled against Robert Mapplethorpe. The missing girl calls to mind many real-life missing-girl cases. There’s a Ponzi scheme, and someone is freed from prison after DNA evidence clears him. And poor Alice finally realizes that she’s been entering information on Facebook that her shadowy enemies have used to entrap her. Topicality has its uses, but it’s woefully overworked here.
Burke is a lawyer turned author who has written three novels about a deputy district attorney in Portland and three more about a New York detective; both characters are women. I reviewed her first novel and thought it was a solid piece of work. “Long Gone” is her first stand-alone novel, neither a procedural nor part of a series. Perhaps she and her publisher think all the bells and whistles will add up to a beach-read bestseller (and who knows what makes a bestseller these days?). Her publicity material has the audacity to compare the novel to Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know.” Believe me, there’s no comparison.
Burke is trying too hard. There’s far too much going on in this novel that simply makes no sense. Three times, for example, X abruptly turns out to be Y’s father or brother or whatever. Although Burke writes smooth prose and offers a colorful portrait of Manhattan, her mishmash of a plot is too cute, too slick, too utterly divorced from reality to take seriously.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.
By Alafair Burke
Harper. 357 pp. $24.99