Mystery novels stimulate the brain; like a crossword puzzle or shot of espresso, they send the neurons into hyperdrive. What most murder mysteries fail to do, however, is to engage the heart. Rarely do we meet the victims in life, still more rarely do we get to know them – their quirks, ambitions, or coffee preferences. The victim in a murder mystery is all too often a prop, a cardboard placeholder designed to give the puzzle a starting point.
Not so in 212 by Alafair Burke. Burke, a former deputy district attorney and professor of criminal law, knows her stuff and knows her characters. We meet Megan Gunther in class, rolling “her fingertips lightly over the keyboard of her laptop computer.” Megan is bored, a driven pre-med student stuck in a philosophy seminar with “unfocused undergrads – the ones who would eventually wind up behind a Starbucks counter, or perhaps in law school…” We learn Megan’s dreams, her musings, and that her creator has a sense of humor. I loved Burke’s sly dig at her own profession. Megan is the good girl, the determined student who ended a relationship that interfered with her studies. Even when Megan sees her name and schedule posted with threatening remarks on an unsavory collegiate website, and even when the police are unable to act upon the concerns of Megan and her parents, we aren’t really worried. Megan’s narrow escape from the stalker will spur on the investigative efforts of Detective Ellie Hatcher. We know too much about Megan, we can’t lose her now. Right?
212 does not begin with Megan’s story, however. It opens with the requisite frantic fleeing woman, the 911 call, and the stock, personality-free corpse on a rainy New York City night. Burke does begin 212 treading treacherously close to the edge of modern mystery cliché: ritzy Manhattan apartment; spunky, young female detective; suspiciously antagonistic real estate development magnate; discussion of heat=violence in New York. However, hints of originality soon begin to crack the stock mystery façade. “But this was not the whole truth, either. If courtrooms had anything to do with the whole truth, he would call her Ellie. And one of them might have to disclose the fact that, just that morning, the testifying detective had woken up naked in the assistant district attorney’s bed.”
While Ellie Hatcher does have a bit too familiar a feel as the just-sassy-enough-small-town girl-with-family-issues detective in the big city, she is likable and introspective enough to interest a reader. Though, I would have liked a bit more depth from Ellie, Burke makes up for a certain flatness in her heroine with a host of intriguing minor characters from victims to villains and with a labyrinth of a plot that taps into our society’s conflicted and often conflicting views of sexuality.
In 212 Burke explores the growing normalization of the sex trade. Considering that we inhabit an era in which political sex scandals erupt on a seemingly daily basis and one can purchase a prostitute or a sofa on the same website, Burke’s plot is timely. So timely, in fact, that two weeks after the manuscript for 212 was submitted, the “Craig’s List Killer” struck.
In the world of 212, as in our world, lies beget more lies, and sex and sexuality are both excessive and taboo. In 212, even committed, adult relationships bump against the boundaries of protocol and acceptance. The remaining encounters demonstrate how quickly rationalization degenerates into chaos.