Former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt keeps a low profile these days, but Portland writers keep resurrecting him—or characters based on him—in their novels.
There was Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege (2008), in which a Goldschmidtian figure is a U.S. president with a secret, and Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick series (2008-09), in which Sen. John Castle harbors Goldschmidtian secrets. Now comes a third novel, 212 (Harper, 368 pages, $24.99), by Alafair Burke, which Burke’s publicist is selling as a novel “based in part on a scandal involving former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt.”
Burke brings a lot of credibility to 212, which is both Manhattan’s area code and the name of the building in which this police procedural, Burke’s fifth novel and third in the Ellie Hatcher series, begins. After graduating from Reed College and Stanford Law, Burke worked in Portland as an assistant Multnomah County district attorney from 1995 to 1999, where one of her colleagues was Kirsten Snowden, Goldschmidt’s stepdaughter.
Now a tenured law professor at Hofstra University in New York, Burke is also the daughter of detective novelist James Lee Burke, whose 15 atmospheric Dave Robicheaux novels are written in the black swamp water of Louisiana bayous.
In 212, Alafair Burke challenges Manhattan detective Ellie Hatcher to unsnarl plot threads involving Craigslist call girls, stone killers, secret identities—and, of course, a long buried sex scandal that comes to light in unpleasant fashion.
Burke’s strength is pulling scandal from the headlines, dosing it with cop- and prosecutor-speak and moving the action along briskly. As a protagonist, Hatcher is textured—her detective father died under mysterious circumstances; her loser brother sleeps on her couch; she’s obsessed with solving cases and conflicted in her relationship with her boss, a female cop who resents Hatcher as much as she admires her.
Despite all these and more devices Burke uses to breathe life into Hatcher, the detective and the city she lives in come across as flat as the printed page. Like Goldschmidt, Burke’s got talent to burn—the question is whether in future novels she’ll develop a strength of characterization and sense of place equal to her ability to turn fact into fiction.
READ: Alafair Burke reads from 212 at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, April 2. Free. She also reads at Murder by the Book, 3210 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 232-9995. 4:30 pm Saturday, April 3. Free.