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Onyx reviews: 212 by Alafair Burke

It's a number many people will recognize: 212, the area code for Manhattan. However, it's also the street address of a condo complex where a homicide occurs. The faux penthouse is owned by real estate magnate Sam Sparks, who occasionally allows his employees to use it as a perq. The murder victim is Robert "Robo" Mancini, Sparks' bodyguard.

After a confrontation with Sparks at the scene of the crime, Detective Ellie Hatcher subse­quently runs afoul of a judge hearing motions in the case by implying that Sparks might be a suspect. She's frustrated that Sparks won't provide financial records that might help their investigation. The fact that her boyfriend is the prosecutor doesn't win her any favors. She spends a night in jail for contempt and emerges from her brief incarceration both humiliated and fired up. The trail goes cold, though, and after four months she and her partner, J.J. Rogan, are assigned to other cases.

One of the other crimes involves an attack on two college students in their apartment. Only one of the women survives. The other victim previously reported a stalker who was making threatening posts on Campus Juice (based on the recently shut down web site Juicy Campus). The geek who hosts the site advises posters to use anonymizing services, which means that Ellie and Logan have no way to track down the person making the threats. 

Then a real estate agent who is also a high-priced escort is murdered. Much to their surprise, Ellie and Logan turn up clues that connect the cases: a convoluted pattern of calls among victims and suspects that defies explanation.

Readers will be forgiven for thinking that Burke is stretching credibility by tying these murders together, especially when some of the seemingly interwoven relationships begin to unravel. Burke draws from several real-life incidents in constructing her plot, including the scandals associated with disgraced politicians like Eliot Spitzer. Cases that involve powerful and influential people are inevitably more complex than usual, since the investigators must dance around strong personalities and fragile reputations.

Despite the book's fast pace, Burke doesn't skimp on characterization. Ellie is a decorated officer whose cases have been featured in popular media, but she has authority issues. Ellie's relationship with Max, the district attorney, seems solid, but it can cause difficulties in her professional life. Her boss, Robin Tucker, is also in a questionable relationship with someone close to the case. Her musician brother sleeps on her couch. She calls her needy mother every day and gets passive-aggressive treatment if she forgets or is unable to.

Many readers will know Alafair Burke as the daughter of legendary crime writer James Lee Burke. However, she is also a lawyer, former deputy District Attorney and currently a law school professor. This is her third Ellie Hatcher novel and sixth book overall, and probably her strongest to date. Her books are rooted in reality and don't rely on gimmicks. Her writing is clear and direct, and she trusts that her readers can follow a complex, non-linear set of events to the end.

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