in person, Alafair Burke and Lisa Unger are sunny, smart and charming. • On the pages of their books, they'll scare the hell out of you. • Unger, who worked in the publishing industry before she switched to writing, lives in Clearwater. Burke, who lives in Manhattan, is a lawyer and professor at Hofstra Law School. And if her name sounds familiar — yes, she is the daughter of crime fiction master James Lee Burke, whose series character Dave Robicheaux also has a daughter named Alafair. • The two women, both bestselling crime fiction authors, are friends — you can kibbitz on one of their chats at the "Tiki Talks" page of Unger's website, at lisaunger.com/videos. You can meet Unger later this month at a Tampa appearance (see box), or on Oct. 20 at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading in St. Petersburg. • At Burke's website, alafairburke.com, you can read the results of this year's Duffer Awards, an offbeat crime fiction contest with categories like "least likely to be fazed by autopsy of disemboweled body" and "guy you call at 3 a.m." • Burke and Unger also both have new novels out, just in time to chill readers to the bone on some steamy summer night.
Secrets to keep
A posh Manhattan townhouse. A bathtub full of pink water. In it, a model-pretty (and model-skinny) 16-year-old, her wrist slashed. An empty wine bottle on the floor. A bitter handwritten note propped on the bed.
That's Ellie Hatcher's first reaction in Alafair Burke's Never Tell. Hatcher, a hard-nosed, Johnny Walker Black-drinking New York City Police detective, doesn't have much patience for Katherine Whitmire, the dead girl's mother, who insists Julia has been murdered. Ellie isn't initially swayed when she gets a sense of the family dynamic: Katherine is the emotionally frosty wife of Bill Whitmire, extravagantly wealthy music producer and mostly absent father, and Julia, a wild-child student at a Gossip Girls-style upper crust prep school, was living mostly on her own in the city while her parents partied in the Hamptons.
The Whitmires know whose private numbers to call to spark a murder investigation, though, and soon Ellie is revising her first impressions (which may have been colored by her personal experience with losing someone to suicide). Katherine casts suspicion on a sweet but strange boy named Casey. He lives in a homeless shelter but was befriended by Julia and her best friend, Ramona, another child of privilege whose warm stepmother, Adrienne, was a stand-in mom to the dead girl.
As Ellie and her partner start digging into several sets of family secrets, Burke alternates the investigation with chapters that are excerpts from a blog written by an unidentified woman, describing how she was sexually abused as a child. The grim, cathartic blog entries begin to draw terrifying, also anonymous responses.
Just how that blog will tie into Julia's death is only one of the skillful and surprising plot twists Burke crafts in Never Tell — and the surprises keep rolling to the end. This is the fourth book in her series about Hatcher, and the detective is a character built to last, with enough flaws and rough edges to keep her intriguing. Burke also has a deft touch with her New York City setting, from stylish restaurants to cruddy garage apartments that go for $1,200 a month. Hatcher's romantic relationship with a prosecutor adds a layer to the plot as well, with its own dilemmas about the meaning of family.
As beautiful as Heart Island is, almost no one wants to go there.
The setting for Lisa Unger's Heartbroken, the forested, rock-rimmed island sits in the middle of a lovely lake in the Adirondacks. Its modern main house and two older cottages offer a haven from everyday life (and cell and Internet connections).
The island has been in the Heart family for several generations, although it's now the fiercely beloved domain of Birdie Heart Burke. An iron-willed matriarch, she spent the most idyllic days of her childhood here, and she expects command appearances each summer from her children and grandchildren. Birdie is used to commanding.
But this year not everyone obeys. Her husband, Joe, comes with her at the beginning of her summer stay but soon flees back to New York. Her son, Theo, refuses her invitation outright.
But her dutiful daughter, Kate, will be there with family in tow — even though Kate's husband, Sean, would just as soon go on an African safari, and teenage daughter Chelsea would, of course, rather hang with her friends. Only Kate's affable son, Brendan, seems happy to go. Kate has a secret to share with her mother, one she isn't at all sure will be welcome. It will stir up the island's ghosts — which Birdie firmly does not believe in (maybe).
Unger introduces us to Birdie and her family with chapters that alternate among her point of view, Kate's and Chelsea's. The teen has her own secrets, like a mysterious boy who's flirting with her on Facebook, and her concerns about her beautiful but airheaded best friend, Lulu, who's in way over her head in her quest to be popular.
Among those chapters are others about a young woman named Emily, who's in trouble much deeper than Lulu's. Emily is a sweet 18-year-old who grew up without a dad and fell hard for a guy named Dean. Her boss, Carol, tells her, "Honey, they all seem great at first. . . . That's how they get you hooked." And it's true — Emily has dropped out of college, and her job waiting tables at Carol's cozy diner, the Blue Hen, is supporting her, Dean and Dean's pill habit.
Then a very unpleasant guy named Brad shows up. Dean knew him in Florida, and Dean owes Brad money, and they have a plan to get it that will put them, and Emily, on a collision course with Birdie and her family.
Cut off by a storm, Birdie, Kate, Chelsea and Lulu confront dangers present and past on Heart Island. Unger creates complex, believable family relationships, especially those between mothers and daughters, and uses those familiar scenes to anchor and contrast the creeping dread of her plot.
Although Heartbroken is a stand-alone novel, Unger does give one of her series characters, retired cop Jones Cooper, a meaningful cameo. And she returns to one of her most frequent themes, the damage that secrets can do for generations.