Never Tell
Alafair Burke
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Buy *Never Tell* by Alafair Burke online

Never Tell
Alafair Burke
368 pages
June 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Set in Manhattan, Burke’s gritty thriller reminds us of the sadness of old ghosts--a state of mind all too familiar to no-nonsense New York cop Ellie Hatcher, and also to an unnamed character who, as the novel opens, is zealously writing a blog detailing her experiences as a former victim and current rape survivor. What initially starts out as an anonymous writing project seems to have taken on a life of its own. One reader has even started to deride the victim for enticing her into thinking she has any kind of real insight into her current existence.

While death threats (“you’ll not live to write about it”) plague the blog writer, she finds her fate suddenly and inextricably intertwined to the apparent suicide of wealthy teenager Julia Whitemore. Julia’s mother, Katherine (who found her daughter in the bathtub), is convinced Julia didn’t kill herself despite the note on a lined sheet of yellow notepaper propped neatly against the throw pillows on the low platform bed. The EMTs at the crime scene are quick to call the girl’s grieving mother “a crazy, mixed-up bitch.” Ellie and her trusted partner, Rogan, remain convinced that Julia’s death was suicide.

Filling her pages with acerbic street dialogue that gives the tale a sheen of urbanity, Burke plays with her themes of assimilation from the smaller world of family to a larger universe of transgendered acceptance. The mystery of whether Julia killed herself or was indeed murdered is more a sociological study of the madness of a series of manipulative, wealthy New Yorkers than a hard-edged NYPD thriller. A number of characters who live in the privileged, fairy-tale worlds of the Upper East Side deal with Adderall addiction, sociopathic children, failed marriages, and a bland superficiality that blinds their glam lifestyles to the things that really matter.

Ellie prides herself on acting on the evidence and the realities she sees before her, despite her memories of being a little Wichita girl who could never accept the fact that her “cop-daddy” blew his brains out. Maybe this is the real reason why Ellie has been so quick to chalk up Julia’s death to suicide. Then there’s the issue of Max, her handsome boyfriend, who accuses Ellie of clinging to a caricature of her own identity, while she only wants to see only what they really share: a commitment to the job, a sense of dark humor, and “a certain matter-of-factness about life.”

When the investigation turns to the movements of three street kids who were hanging around the Whitemore’s townhouse just weeks before, Ellie realizes she must quickly bend to the mindset of petty criminals and teenagers wise beyond their years, reflecting the usual chaos of the city’s homelessness. Ellie must also deal with cynical machinations of well-to-do doctors who dispense pharmaceuticals like candy and engage in drug trials with patents who take experimental anti-psychotics for mental conditions they most likely don’t have.

Moving from the front-page news stories that pit the city’s wealthy and elite against an abused homeless kid to the general bleakness of a society that puts profit before people, Burke's edgy, wild ride reminds us that in Ellie’s world of pinched recrimination and embarrassed repression, the past does not always marry well with the present.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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