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Onyx reviews: If You Were Here by Alafair Burke

As the old saying goes, you aren't paranoid if people really are out to get you.

Ten years ago, McKenna Jordan was an assistant district attorney who got to work on a high-profile case: the prosecution of a white police officer who was accused of shooting a black man. Though it seemed like self-defense (the dead man was holding a gun), McKenna pursued a line of inquiry that led her to believe that the officer had planted the weapon. Her zeal caused a rift in the community and escalated racial tensions. However, she was ultimately discredited and left the DA's office in disgrace.

Now she's facing a similar dilemma. Some of the research she relied upon for an article she wrote for a high-profile magazine that exposed wrongdoing by a sitting judge is revealed to be fabricated. Worse, the evidence indicates that it was McKenna who falsified the damning emails. Once again she is a pariah in her profession and she can only wonder why.

Two things happened recently that might help her figure out why someone is using smear tactics against her. She published a long article about the decade-old case and her part in it, which may have reawakened some old animosities. Then she sees cell phone video from an incident in the subway where a woman rescued a teenager who had fallen onto the tracks. McKenna is convinced that the woman is Susan Hauptmann, a former friend and one-time roommate who vanished without a trace, also ten years ago. 

Even those close to her think she's reading too much into a grainy video, but McKenna won't be dissuaded from her belief. Though she believed at the time that Susan would never have disappeared voluntarily and must therefore be dead, she now thinks she was wrong. As she digs deeper, she also learns that she needs to reevaluate her impressions of Susan's character. How well did she really know her?

Her first tangible indication that someone wants to discourage her from pursuing the subway incident is that the online storage site housing the video is hacked and all traces of the video eliminated. The fact that the security cameras in the subway station all malfunctioned during the time in question is also highly suspicious.

McKenna loses her job, but she has the skills and determination of a prosecutor coupled with the tenacity of an investigative reporter, so she doesn't take the situation lying down. Leads are hard to come by, and someone is cleaning up the remaining clues efficiently. When she makes inquiries into an eco-terrorism group because of a logo she made out in the deleted video, she becomes the target of a federal investigation. She can't win for losing.

The novel is told almost exclusively from McKenna's point of view. She's a determined character who readers will root for. A straight-shooter who has a strong relationship with her husband; however, once the paranoia sets in, even he falls under suspicion of being complicit in the scheme against her. Burke is confident in her characterization and in her setting, Manhattan, a place she clearly knows and loves. As a former prosecutor, she also knows all the legal angles. She keeps the book's pace at breakneck speed, using five-page chapters with hooky endings to propel readers along.

If You Were Here is a complicated novel, and very little is exactly what it seems to be. The truth behind the conspiracy has layer upon layer. Any time readers starts feeling like they have the whole thing worked out, they should think again. At a certain point, it looks like all the cards are on the table, but the fact that there are still twenty or thirty pages remaining are proof that Burke (daughter of crime writer James Lee Burke) still has a few tricks left up her sleeve.

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