Missing Justice is your second novel — and the second in a mystery series. Would you say you’re following in the footsteps of your father, James Lee Burke?
Actually, when it comes to mysteries, you could say my father followed in my footsteps. Many people don’t know that he published several works before turning to crime fiction with The Neon Rain, so no one thought of my father as a mystery writer during my formative years. I, however, was a huge fan of the genre. I plowed through the entire Encyclopedia Brown series and used to steal time with my dad’s manual Royal typewriter to hammer out page turners like “Murder at the Roller Disco.” So, for the record, I beat my dad to the mystery punch.
Clearly, though, he’s been a huge influence on me. What I really think I inherited from my family more than any particular writing style (or talent for that matter) is a narrative tradition. The Burkes are people who tell stories, and I grew up watching my father work a full-time job and then come home and write every single day to get his stories on paper. That clearly affected me and turned me into someone who is able to sit down and write. People have asked if I worked to find my own voice. The work would be in trying not to have a different voice. My father is a man of his generation raised in the south, and I’m not. So of course our works are incredibly different.
Samantha Kincaid, your protagonist, is a district attorney. What led you to choose this profession for her?
I guess this goes back to the rule of write what you know. I was a Deputy District Attorney in Oregon, so my personal experience with crimes and how they are solved comes from that perspective. I also think that the role of the prosecutor is fascinating and relatively unexplored territory. Most accounts of the criminal justice system – both fictionalized and not – tend to tell the story of a trial from the defense perspective. One gets the impression that a crime is committed, the police either get their man or they don’t, and then the defense goes to work trying to prevent a conviction. The story that’s rarely told is the prosecutor’s. A bad prosecutor can blow a good case through incompetence or apathy or press a bad case out of blind ambition. Prosecutors are entrusted with a tremendous amount of power and responsibility. Doing the job well requires incredibly hard work and good judgment.
Does Kincaid’s profession allow you any flexibility or options other professions might not?
Sure. As a prosecutor, Samantha gets to straddle the line between the investigation stage of a case and the trial. If your protagonist is a cop or a PI, she runs the show during the chase, but then falls to the background when it comes time to put on the proof. A defense attorney’s a player during the trial, but has little room to maneuver before court proceedings start. I enjoy the flexibility Samantha’s position gives me to unfold the plot either during an investigation or as part of a trial.
Are any aspects of Missing Justice based on actual cases you saw as a prosecutor?
The book is fiction, of course, but there is no doubt that every case I create for Samantha is colored by my experience at the District Attorney’s Office. I like to think that is what makes the series realistic. Every motion made, every search conducted, every objection raised, is a process that I believe would be part of an actual criminal investigation and prosecution.
Is Samantha Kincaid modeled on anyone you know?
Samantha’s educational and professional experiences are definitely based on my own. Like me, Samantha graduated from Stanford Law School and turned down more lucrative job offers to work as a state court prosecutor in a city she loved. I like to think that her most noble characteristics – her desire to stand up to perversions of justice and always feel good at the end of the day about the decisions she made – are shared not just by me, but by most people. Hopefully the reader will see in Samantha a woman with an almost consuming determination to do what is right, no matter the personal cost. I saw that obsession in some of the people I was lucky enough to work with in Portland. They’re some of the finest people I’ve ever known, and I intended Samantha to embody their fortitude.
In some ways, Samantha’s clearly better than I am. She’s taller, more diligent, and could beat me in a race without breaking a sweat. As for some of Samantha’s more neurotic traits, I plead the Fifth.
You’re currently teaching criminal law at Hofstra. Do you draw any inspiration for your fiction from your work?
I remember as a law student watching an episode of Law and Order. The detectives were about to take a guy into custody outside his apartment, and the older guy told the young one to wait, then made the arrest after the suspect opened his car trunk. I had just learned about a rule that lets police search the “grab area” around an arrest, and I thought it was so cool to watch the show and understand why the detective had done that, so he could search the trunk without a warrant. I see my students react the same way to law taught through pop culture.
Any friendly competition between you and your father?
No way. He’s way too cool to compete with.
Are you at work on the next installment in the series? Anything you can tell us at this point?
Yes. In the third entry in the series, Samantha is investigating the murder of an investigative reporter. In the process, she unearths evidence that the reporter was looking into corruption in the Portland Police Bureau. Her pursuit of the reporter’s leads may jeopardize her prosecution against the reporter’s killers, her reputation with the bureau, and perhaps even her relationship with Chuck.
What can we expect for Samantha Kincaid?
I hope that’s not another way of asking me to spoil the next book. I will say you learn more about Samantha’s background. Judgment Calls was a way to introduce her life and the people in it – Grace, Chuck, and Martin (her father). (Oh, and, of course, her loyal dog, Vinnie.) With the basics covered, Missing Justice is letting me dole out the back story you don’t learn in Judgment Calls. As for her future, I expect Samantha to live a nice and long, but never easy, life.