Book World: ‘Never Tell,’ by Alafair Burke

June 17, 2012

There’s a lot going on in Alafair Burke’s fourth Ellie Hatcher novel, “Never Tell,” most of it bad. Ellie is a police detective in Manhattan, and at the outset she’s called to investigate the death of 16-year-old Julia in her parents’ plush West Village townhouse. The girl was found in her bathtub with her wrists slashed and a knife and a suicide note nearby. Ellie and her partner see suicide, but the girl’s rich parents — her father is a celebrated rock-music producer — angrily reject that verdict. They call the police department brass, and Ellie and her partner are pressured to look again for evidence of murder.

What they find isn’t pretty. Julia’s parents left the girl alone in the townhouse while they spent time in the Hamptons, unaware of Julia’s active sex life, which included a yen for older men. The detectives meet the dead girl’s best friend, Ramona, who has her secrets, as do her parents. All four parents will arouse our suspicions, along with a smooth-talking psychiatrist and some street kids whom Julia had befriended. The detectives also visit the prestigious day school Julia attended, where the headmistress won’t cooperate and the students are mostly spoiled, obnoxious and stressed out, gobbling Adderall and other drugs to get by.

Of the three street kids Julia hung out with, two — a boy and a girl — are addicts and con artists. The third is a girl named Cassandra, who dresses as a boy and calls herself Casey. She’s as good a person as exists in the book, so naturally the other two try to pin the death on her to collect the reward that Julia’s father has unwisely offered.

We take detours into two scary subplots. In one, a woman whose identity is not immediately known to us is writing a blog that describes her sexual abuse as a child. Alarmingly, one of the readers responding to the blog claims to be the original offender, who threatens to do even worse harm. There’s also a man — a different man — who, on being released from prison, heads for Manhattan with unspecified evil in mind. These two menacing characters eventually merge with the central plot.

Even as Ellie confronts this mess, she has other problems on her mind. There’s the sexist judge who makes obnoxious comments to her: “And now here she is in the butch pants — trousers, let’s say. . . . You’ve got your best assets covered up. You look like a boy.” There’s the ex-boyfriend she’s mad at, a stuffy stockbroker who wanted her to go to a spa to relax, although her idea of a good time is “a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black and an entire season of ‘30 Rock’ in one sitting.” Then there’s her boyfriend, a nice-guy lawyer whom she thinks she loves, although she doesn’t share his desire for children, a stand that puts their future in doubt.

Ellie, in truth, has a lot of sharp edges. She makes people mad, and she makes mistakes. Before this case is over, she has to admit that she’d been “reacting on emotion, not facts” about Julia’s possible suicide because her own father killed himself when she was young. She’s not warm and cuddly, but she makes a believable heroine.

Burke has a good eye for the many faces of New York. She nails the elite day school that some parents would kill — perhaps literally — to get their kids into. She exposes a doctor who has gotten in bed with the big drug companies and a rape victim who turns out not to be a victim entirely. Burke’s story is complex, but her pace is fast, her prose is crisp and her duplicitous characters ring true in the Darwinian world she creates.

Her descriptions are sharp, too, although one of them seems off-key at first. She introduces a young woman who talks “like a 1960s waitress slinging hash in a Waco diner.” Burke is a bit young to have known any hash-slinging 1960s waitresses, in Waco or elsewhere, so I took that line to be homage to her father, the great, Texas-born crime novelist James Lee Burke. If so, it’s a nice touch.

Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.

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