"Long Gone" is a new crime novel, her seventh, a standalone suspense/mystery/thriller by Alafair Burke. So far, Burke has been drawing on her legal experience to give us two mystery series, one centering on New York Police Department Detective Ellie Hatcher, and one centering on Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. This is the author's first standalone. It is set, like Burke's Hatcher series, in New York, a bad place to be broke. After being laid off from a great job at the Metropolitan Museum, followed by months of struggle, for she is on her own now, despite her privileged upbringing--the book's protagonist/ narrator Alice Humphrey finally lands what sounds like a dream job. She is to manage a new storefront art gallery in Manhattan's emerging Meatpacking District.
A man who calls himself Drew Campbell, apparently a well-suited, well-fed corporate representative, hires Alice and tells her the gallery is a pet project for its anonymous, wealthy, eccentric owner. Drew assures Alice that the gallery's owner will be hands off, allowing her to run it on her own. Her friends think if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but Alice has spent her adult life hunting for a way to make a name for herself beyond the shadow of her famous father, an award-winning and controversial film maker, and she's not about to let this chance go by.
Things start off swimmingly, the gallery's opening is successful, and business seemingly is going great guns. Until the morning Alice arrives at work to find the gallery utterly gone--the space stripped bare as if its artistic incarnation had never existed--and the dead body of the man who called himself Drew Campbell on the floor. Overnight, Alice's dream job has vanished, and she finds herself at the center of a police investigation with no way to prove her innocence. Yet things get still worse--the phone number Drew gave Alice is that of a disposable phone. Nobody can find any trace of the artist whose work she displayed at the gallery's opening. The dead man she claims was Drew is identified as someone else. And then police discover ties between the gallery and Becca Stevenson, a missing teenage girl from nearby New Jersey.
It's undoubtedly a clever move on the author's part to characterize Alice as the daughter of a famous, highly-accomplished man, as Alafair Burke is herself the daughter of a famous, highly-accomplished man, the widely-beloved bestselling mystery author James Lee Burke. And I'm sure Alafair doesn't much care to have her work compared to her father's, but here I go. Alafair does OK by her New York background, but I didn't consider her writing in that regard up to either of the two New York-based mystery writers who are considered tops in that area: the prolific Lawrence Block, or Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe series. Her work certainly lacks what famous 20th century Irish poet William Butler Yeats once called "passionate intensity," which James Lee Burke's work certainly has in regard to his home turf, New Orleans, Texas and the Gulf Coast. Nor does Alafair seem to follow James Lee in what appear to be his struggles to find what the French, and perhaps the Louisiana Cajuns, would call "le mot juste." The best word for the job at hand - as Alice at one point calls herself "a loser." I can't remember James Lee Burke ever expressing himself in such a flat-footed way.
The book's plot is reasonably complex, but I had some difficulty getting into it, as the work starts with not much action, while introducing way too many characters at once. And, from mid-book on, I'd pretty much guessed the villains. However, Alafair makes good use of two relatively recent widely-remembered art world scandals. In 1999, the popular Brooklyn Museum enraged some Catholics by showing a Madonna, limned with elephant dung, by Chris Ofili, from the British Saatchi collection. And in 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts was almost closed down by public anger at a piece by Jose Serrano, which showed a figure of Christ bottled in the artist's urine. A lot of language about artistic freedom and freedom of speech was thrown around at that time.
I've previously read and reviewed Alafair's Close Case (Samantha Kincaid Mysteries)
, which I wasn't crazy about either. But Burke is an intelligent, talented young woman, and I look for better work from her in the future.