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Onyx reviews: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke steps away from her regular series of police procedurals for a standalone novel that combines Hitchcock's favorite storyline—the innocent person unjustly accused of a crime who needs to prove his or her innocence—with the kind of convoluted mystery favored by writers like Ross Macdonald that depends upon uncovering the sins of the distant past.

The protagonist is a young redhead named Alice Humphrey. She is divorced, has a complex relationship with a male acquaintance and has been out of work for months when, out of the blue, she is offered a job managing a new private art gallery in Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District. A friend warns her it sounds too good to be true—that the person offering the job will never follow through—but he does. There is a catch, of course. The gallery is funded by an anonymous benefactor who insists that his partner—a Robert Mapplethorpe wannabe—be given a showing for his photographs, most of which even a generous person would hesitate to call art. Less generous people protest the gallery, accusing the artist of producing pornography featuring underage girls.

Alice isn't entirely without resources. She's the daughter of an Oscar-winning movie director and was herself the star of a popular TV series as a child. However, after her father's rumored serial indiscretions recently became fodder for the media in a case reminiscent of Roman Polanski, she cut herself off from him, refusing all offers of financial assistance. This moral stand left her in a bind until Drew Campbell approached her with his offer. She is caught blindsided when she finds Campbell's body at the gallery shortly after the required exhibit, which was a financial success, especially with internet buyers.

She finds herself in the middle of a plot to frame her. Drew Campbell doesn't exist—at least not the male version who hired her. There is another Drew Campbell, a redhead who looks exactly like her, featured in a photograph in which Alice (or Drew) is kissing the unidentified dead man. The false Campbell arranged things so it seems like Alice is the gallery's owner. It's only a matter of time before the police amass sufficient (fabricated) evidence to arrest her for the murder, as well as fraud and distributing pornographic material.

In parallel, a police officer is investigating the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old girl from New Jersey. Another plotline involves an FBI officer who is defying direct orders and continuing to stalk the man who he blames for his sister's death. Both stories end up connected to Alice's, though in different and unexpected ways.

Pacing in a novel like this is vital, and Burke does an excellent job of keeping the story moving at a fast pace, juggling the various strands of the plot so they will come together when needed. The chapters are short, which allows the author to flit back and forth to build suspense. The book's prolog is an effective tool to build dread. Often prologs are used to herald something that will come late in the story but in this case the payoff comes much earlier than expected, which means there is a lot left to tell once the novel catches back up to that scene.

Alice is a credible and likeable protagonist, which makes the whole thing work. She has friends (though only a few) and a brother with troubles of his own, including a history of drug addiction. The book makes use of contemporary technology, including the pitfalls of sexting (sending naked pictures via cell phone) and of revealing too much information via social media.

The plot is complex enough to prevent all but the most astute and near-psychic to guess what's really going on, and there are a couple of surprises that should catch almost every reader by surprise. The convoluted scheme, though, bogs down a bit at the end, as it requires a fair amount of explanation to clear it all up, which works against the nature of a fast-paced thriller. Another thing that works against the author is the physical book. Based on the number of pages left, it's obvious that important events remain to be told when the mystery seems to be solved.

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