Alafair Burke: Five Books/Albums That Changed My Life

ANDY GIBB – When I was a kid, each of our six family members gave the others one Christmas present.  One parent would give us something practical (new sheets or socks), and one parent would give us something fun (can you say Wheeble Wobbles?).  The four kids had even less spending money than the folks, but our little gifts (giant lollipops, novelty combs for the back pockets of our jeans) filled in the bottom of the tree and ensured that we all had plenty of surprises on Christmas morning.  I remember peeling back the wrapping paper on a flat square package and seeing a familiar, and beautiful, face.  My sister, Andree, had gone beyond our usual budgets and had given me my first album.  Andy Gibb.  I confess: I still have  “I Just Want to be Your Everything” on my iPod.  I probably always will.

The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg – I guess those early memories really stick.  My mother found this book for me when I was a young reader obsessed with mysteries.  Claudia Kincaid is an almost-twelve-year-old who desperately wants an adventure away from her adventureless family.  Ideally, she’d leave her three little brothers in the wind, but she persuades her little brother Jamie to accompany her because Jamie, unlike Claudia, saves his money – money they will need to make it to New York City.  Claudia has chosen a place to run to that is “great and large and wonderful and free to all” – The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Once the Kincaid kids are settled in, they get entangled in a mystery about the museum’s newest acquisition, a marble statue called “Angel,” which may or may not be an early work of Michelangelo.

The Mixed-Up Files has the pacing of plot, sense of place, and character development that we all search for as grown-up readers.  It has the kind of beginning, middle, and end that good mysteries need.  The question at the center of the book is conceivable but suspenseful, accompanied by interpretable clues, and all of it comes together at the completion, just as it should be.  And, also the way it should be, the puzzle is part of a larger story – this one about a young girl’s search for self-identity and specialness in a place where she first hides to find anonymity.  I read this tale over and over, losing myself in the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the last satisfying pages when the clues fell together and Claudia had completed her inner journey.

Prince, Purple Rain.  – It wasn’t just the music, it was the man: a pure, uncensored, unrestrained frenzy of sexual energy in one petite, high-heeled package.  It was the MTV revolution, when video killed radio stars and what we heard became entangled with what we saw.  I loved blow-dried, lip-glossed, pretty pop idols like the boys of Duran Duran and Scritti Politti (how’s that for obscure?), but Prince!  I could not take my eyes off him, and I could not stop listening.  I even convinced myself he was a really good actor in the film.  All these years later, I still think he’s the best musical performer who has ever lived.

A IS FOR ALIBI, Sue Grafton – As long as I have known how to read, I have loved the puzzle-solving component of mysteries.  All that chaos.  All that confusion.  It’s enough to make a reader throw her book across the room.  But the writer makes an implicit promise to the reader that questions will be answered and order will be restored.  But it wasn’t until I met Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone that I experienced the pure joy of having the puzzle solved by a person who seemed a lot like me.  I still treasure every new Kinsey book like a visit from an old friend.


The Hours, Michael Cunningham.  I read this book before I ever entertained the idea of writing, which means I read it back when I could truly enjoy a book as it was intended to be read.  But I think about it often now that I’m a writer, especially when I’m afraid of the choices I’m making on the page.  This is, after all, a book about three different women, in three different times, tethered together not by plot, but by the themes of a Virginia Woolf novel.  How many times must the author have asked himself whether the stories would meld together, whether anyone would get it?  Whenever I’m wondering the same thing, I think about the Hours and remind myself that the most memorable books came from a writer’s leap of faith.

A graduate of Stanford Law School and a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair is now a Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School, where she teaches criminal law and procedure. Her latest thriller, Long Gone, has been praised by some of the world’s most respected crime writers: Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Scottoline, Lisa Unger, and Nelson DeMille. She can be found on Twitter and Facebook.