Rounding Out an Unintentional Trilogy
By Dawn Ius
Alafair Burke didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but with the release of her latest novel of domestic suspense—THE BETTER SISTER—Burke completes a set of three thematic novels that explore “the complexity of female relationships and the diverse roles that women play in contemporary society.”
THE BETTER SISTER is, of course, a mystery—there’s a dead body, numerous suspects, and enough twists to give readers whiplash—but at its core, it’s the story of two sisters: Chloe, the seemingly perfect career woman; and Nicky, the unstable sibling whose recklessness cost her her marriage and her son. Chloe ended up with both, until her husband ended up dead, and her stepson the prime suspect.
While readers might not relate to the specifics of this particular family dysfunction, they will find something familiar about each of the sisters. In Chloe, it’s constant guilt—not only for marrying her sister’s ex-husband, but also for having a successful career, an achievement she is constantly apologizing for, despite knowing she shouldn’t have to.
“People tend to be intimidated by women who are good at their jobs and know it,” says Burke. “We’re always telling kids to be the first to raise their hand in class—but when a girl does that in real life, we find it annoying.”
Chloe would be the type to first raise her hand in class, of course—and that ambition parallels Burke’s own personal drive. She might even say that Chloe is an “exaggerated version of me. Competitive. A bit of a perfectionist.”
She comes by it naturally. As the daughter of the great author James Lee Burke, many of her friends and family simply assumed that she would follow in her father’s literary footsteps—even her dad.
Burke vehemently denied her destiny…for a while, at least. But after working at the District Attorney’s office for a few years, her imagination started to churn.
Still, Burke wasn’t quite ready to tell Dad he was right, not until she had a completed first draft. But she made the critical mistake of confiding in their now-shared agent. Eighteen books later, Burke is no longer snubbing fate. Instead, it seems she is fully embracing her career as a successful author.
In addition to working on the next installment in her popular Ellie Hatcher series, Burke is flexing another set of skills—drafting the screenplay for the film adaptation of the second novel in this thematic trilogy, 2018’s The Wife.
“When I was offered the opportunity to write the screenplay, I jumped at it,” she says, noting that learning the three-act structure of a feature film gave her new insight into her novel writing, too.
As a result, THE BETTER SISTER seems poised not only to skyrocket up the bestseller charts, but also land an option deal. The nod would be nice, but Burke says there’s still a lot on her writerly bucket list she’d like to achieve.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be number one, or to win a big prize,” she says. “But I don’t really think like that. There’s always going to be something to reach for. A new goal to shoot for.”
Much like her protagonist, Chloe, in THE BETTER SISTER, no achievement may ever be enough. But Burke admits she’s also a little like Nicky, who readers will quickly learn isn’t exactly the villain she’s made out to be in the book’s page-turning first act.
Burke makes it look easy, but she says parts of THE BETTER SISTER were more difficult to write than she imagined. Like the verbal assault Chloe endures as a result of some intense cyber bullying.
“I hated writing those pages more than writing some of my most violent scenes,” she says. “It was so ugly—and I don’t think it’s even as bad as what you see online. Twitter is a cesspool.”
But shying away from that reality—and the abuse often aimed at successful women—isn’t an option. Writing psychological female-centric novels is where her passion lies, much like Mary Higgins Clark, who Burke has had the honor of writing alongside for the past few years. In co-authoring five books with arguably one of the most noted thriller writers of all time, Burke says she’s learned a lot.
“I don’t think she gets enough credit for being the mother of these kinds of thrillers,” Burke says. “If you think about her novel Where the Children Are—she really was ahead of her time. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself when I realize I get to write with her.”
For Burke, it’s a solid check on that never-ending bucket list. One even Chloe might be proud of.