Monday, July 16, 2007

"Dead Connection"

A former deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, the novelist Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School.

She applied the "Page 69 Test" to her new novel, Dead Connection, and reported the following:
In Dead Connection, NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher gets a temporary assignment to the homicide squad when a publicity-seeking detective, Flann McIlroy, decides that she can help him catch a killer who finds his victims using an Internet dating website called Although the bulk of the book follows Ellie and Flann as they track the First Date killer through modern-day Manhattan, page 69 gives a glimpse into Ellie's past, as the daughter of a Kansas cop who was haunted by another elusive killer:

In a letter mailed to the Wichita Eagle in 1981, he included a sketch of one of the murder scenes – so graphic and accurate that police speculated it was drawn from a photograph. After another the next year, he sent the police an actual photograph along with an audiotape of the victim struggling to breathe. For years, that package was the College Hill Strangler's last known communication.

Then precisely twenty years later, a reporter at the city newspaper received an envelope containing a necklace and a Polaroid picture. The necklace was one police had been looking for since 1978 – stolen from the single mother who was the College Hill Strangler's first victim. The picture was of the corpse of another woman, the victim of a still-unsolved murder in 1997. With hopes of revival, EMT's had rushed her immediately from the bedroom where she was found strangled to the hospital where she died. Only her killer could have a photo of her body.

The College Hill Strangler was back. The anonymous mailing was his way of announcing that to the police. While the city was comforted by false theories of his death or incapacitation, he still lived among them, killing. Over the next eleven months, he would dole out six more envelopes of surprises – letters, drawings, even poems. His desire to gloat finally led to his own capture when an alert teenager jotted down the license plate number of a car peeling rubber as it sped away from the neighborhood mail drop.

When the First Date killer starts to taunt Ellie using the same tactics as the College Hill Strangler, Ellie wonders if her connection to the Wichita killer was the only reason Flann wanted her on the First Date investigation. It also raises all of her old battles with the Wichita police, who labeled her father's death a suicide, even as Ellie and her mother Roberta insisted his death was at the hands of the killer, later identified as William Summer:

"They're trotting out the same old story," Roberta said. "He was meticulous about his mementos and his diaries. They found evidence linking him to the eight named victims, and that's all."

"That's bullshit," Ellie said, quickly apologizing to her mother for the language. It would be just like Summer to gloat to the police about all his other killings, except for the one cop who almost caught him.

"Maybe you could help if you came down here," Roberta offered. "I have a hard enough time on my own without all of this going on."

"Mom, I told you I'd come down once there was a reason to. I'll take as much time off as I have to. If we get access to the evidence, I'll go through it myself, piece by piece. Or if they'd just let me talk to him – "

"You know I don't like that idea."

Ellie's past grew out of my own experiences as a child in Wichita, Kansas in the late 1970's, when a man who called himself BTK murdered at least seven people and then gloated to the media about it. For years, that small midwestern city was terrorized by the idea of a man who walked into houses in the light of day, cut the phone cords, and then calmly called 911 when he was finished. Bind, Torture, Kill.

When BTK resurfaced in 2004, twenty years after his last known communication, I knew I wanted to write about the case. I eventually went so far as to contact the defendant's criminal lawyer to explore the possibility of an interview. In response, I received a handwritten letter from the defendant, making clear that my inquiry had made him feel important. I felt sick to my stomach.

Neither that man nor his horrible acts made their way into Dead Connection. Instead, I chose to write through fiction about the toll that crimes such as his take upon the victims' survivors and, indeed, upon an entire city. Ellie Hatcher is thirty years old. She's tough and smart and an experienced cop. But at night, alone in her bed, she is still a little girl who wonders what her father's final moments were like and whether she will ever know the truth about what happened to him.
Read more about Dead Connection, including an excerpt, at Alafair Burke's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue