For Alafair Burke, whose 10th mystery "All Day and a Night" (Harper: 352 pp., $26.99) is published this month, it all goes back to Dennis Rader. Known as the BTK killer, he terrorized Wichita, Kan., in the 1970s and 1980s, when Burke was growing up there.
As a kid, she was obsessed with BTK, theorizing about the case with her father, the crime writer James Lee Burke, as if she were, she jokes, "a really dark Encyclopedia Brown."
Then, in 2005, as she was working on her fourth novel, "Dead Connection" — which involves a serial killer who stalks his victims through an online dating service — Rader was arrested, and Burke felt her childhood fascination return. "I sent a letter to his defense lawyers while the case was pending," she recalls by phone from her home in Manhattan, "telling them I'd be interested in coming to Wichita to write about it, and, of course, they gave the letter to him."
Before long, Rader had written to her directly, and receiving his letter, "in that recognizable handwriting," made her feel terrified and sick. "I knew right then," Burke says, "that I wasn't going to write about him, and yet I still felt a pull. I remember coming home and checking the phone lines to make sure they hadn't been cut."
Compelled by these memories, she began to develop Ellie Hatcher, the NYPD detective who was introduced in "Dead Connection" and stands at the center of "All Day and a Night" and three other books. "Her character came after the plot," Burke says, "which is a rarity for me."
It's also what sets Ellie apart. Her compulsion, her sense of place, grounds the series, making it as much about the characters as it is about the crimes. In "All Day and a Night," she and her partner, J.J. Rogan, go after another serial killer, who after years of inactivity has apparently reemerged.
Police work runs in the family; the daughter of a Wichita detective, Ellie is driven in some sense by her father's efforts to bring a BTK-like killer to ground.
The temptation, of course, is to read into this something of Burke's relationship with her own father, who wrote for years without recognition before "The Lost Get-Back Boogie" appeared in 1986. But, Burke suggests, "the biggest influence was seeing him write when no one was reading. It taught me patience. You need to write for the right reasons; that's the most important thing he taught me."
To Burke, this has meant keeping her day job; a former deputy D.A., she is a professor at Hofstra University School of Law. The writing and the teaching feed each other, although usually more in terms of craft than content — the nuances of the law.
With "All Day and a Night," however, those boundaries have shifted. The narrative is built around a wrongful conviction claim, and recently, Burke spoke to the Manhattan D.A.'s office on just this issue — a case of life imitating art.
The strength of the novel is its complexity: The characters are variegated, textured, operating out of a range of motivations, personal and otherwise. "Not every character is part of you," Burke says, "but you have to have empathy for every character … although sometimes you don't figure that out until after the fact."
This is the challenge of working on a series, to keep the characters fresh and growing, to remain engaged. It's one reason Burke stopped writing about Samantha Kincaid, the prosecutor protagonist of her first three novels, although, she says with a laugh, "I can never bring myself to say I've given up on her."
More to the point, Ellie keeps moving forward, which means our relationship to her extends beyond the border of a single work. "It's very important," Burke insists, "that every novel is self-contained but also that there be gradual changes in the character and her circumstances. There has to be a payoff from book to book."