Family secrets twist the plot in Alafair Burke’s ‘The Better Sister’

Two estranged sisters who have been married to the same man join forces when he is murdered.
Published April 12

Chloe Taylor’s life looks pretty sweet.

The narrator of Alafair Burke’s new novel, The Better Sister, Chloe is editor in chief of Eve, “one of the last remaining successful feminist-oriented magazines in the country.” As the book begins, she is about to receive a prestigious Press for the People award for Eve’s series of stories related to the #MeToo movement.

It’s a triumph she’ll celebrate with her teenage stepson, Ethan, and — although he barely makes it to the award ceremony on time — her husband, Adam Macintosh, a corporate lawyer. The family shares a Manhattan apartment, a house in East Hampton and what looks like an Instagram-ready life.

The glow won’t last. The next night, Chloe returns from a party to the East Hampton house to find Adam brutally murdered.

Stunned by shock and grief, Chloe is desperate to understand his death. She wonders whether it might be related to a series of mysterious meetings with a client in the days before he was killed, meetings he was unusually evasive about. Or could it have something to do with the viciously misogynist trolls who pursue Chloe on social media with threats of rape and murder?

The police have their own theories, and soon Chloe realizes Ethan is a suspect. Conflict between Ethan and Adam that Chloe sees as normal teenage drama looks more serious to the detectives. Her faith in the boy is unshakable, but she needs help, so she reaches out to his biological mother — who happens to be her own older sister, Nicky.

Burke slowly, skillfully reveals the story of how first one, then the other sister married Adam. Nicky was the wild child, given to drink and drugs and fleeting relationships until Adam brought her stability.

Ethan’s birth upended that brief idyll. Within a couple of years Adam had left Nicky and gained custody of their son. A couple more years and he was married to Chloe, the polar opposite of her sister, the high-achieving perfectionist and, some would say, control freak.

Nicky has long been estranged from her sister and ex-husband and has little contact with her son. Chloe is really the only mother Ethan has ever known, and she’s devoted to him. With the help of Nicky and a powerhouse defense attorney, Olivia Randall, she intends to protect him.

The sisters find it difficult to work in tandem, though. There is old bad blood between them and ongoing disapproval of each other’s lifestyles, as well as skirmishes for Ethan’s loyalties.

And then there are the secrets. The plot of The Better Sister is built upon them: Chloe’s secrets, Adam’s secrets, Ethan’s secrets and Nicky’s, even secrets the sisters share without knowing it.

Burke (the daughter of master crime fiction writer James Lee Burke) has written a couple of mystery series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and another with lawyer Samantha Kincaid, as well as the Under Suspicion series she writes with mystery doyenne Mary Higgins Clark.

The Better Sister, Burke’s 18th book, is a stand-alone that completes a trilogy of domestic thrillers. The trilogy also includes The Ex — Randall, who returns here as Ethan’s lawyer, was its main character — and The Wife, now in development as a movie for Amazon, with Burke writing the script.

Like all of Burke’s novels, The Better Sister benefits from her inside knowledge of the legal system. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and procedure in the law school at Hofstra University. The novel’s courtroom scenes and Randall’s strategies ring true, as does the world of Adam’s law firm, with its enormously wealthy international clientele.

But Burke is just as adept at creating complex characters and the relationships between them. Chloe has some sharp edges and unpleasant secrets, but Burke keeps us invested in her intelligence and drive. Nicky seems like a ditz, but there’s more to her than we — and Chloe — expect.

As always, Burke keeps the book’s action fast-paced and full of surprises. Her novels are sometimes compared to all those Girl in the Whatever bestsellers, and it’s true she twists a plot with the best of them. But Burke’s characters aren’t girls, they’re women, and her books are the better for it.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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