My author bio used to say that I was a graduate of Stanford Law School, a former clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a professor of law at the Maurice A. Deane Law School at Hofstra University. While this is all true, I’ve changed it now to focus on my life as a writer rather than as a lawyer. After all, my books aren’t courtroom dramas or legal thrillers in the traditional sense. You’ll rarely find a lawyer on my pages, calling out, “Hearsay!” and “Speculation!” There’s nary a robe or gavel in sight.

Nevertheless, my work in the criminal justice system has undoubtedly affected my fiction, including The Wife. As a Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Oregon, I divided my time between prosecuting domestic violence offences in court and acting as a liaison to the police department, where I worked directly out of the police precinct and frequently donned a Kevlar vest for night-shift ride-alongs. I advised police regarding legal issues arising from crime scenes, tried cases, reviewed warrants – all of that. I learned the rhythm of a criminal case, from start to finish.

Precisely how I draw on that experience as a writer has changed over time. From the very beginning, I knew that art shouldn’t literally replicate life, at least not where the law is concerned. What we see on television is far more exciting than the reality of most legal procedures. And for good reason – a criminal trial is a grind, the gears slow and belabored. For example, no one wants to read a transcript of a lawyer following the highly technical, but mind-numbingly mechanical steps required to introduce a simple document into evidence at trial. A writer has to tone down the procedural details, and I’ve gotten better about this over time. In my early work, I had my fair share of showy moments, filling the page with the legal knowledge I gained through experience. In retrospect, I may have been compensating for the insecurities that every novice writer knows. How dare I write a book? What do I have to offer? I know! My lawyer brain!

But eventually I grew more comfortable with my storytelling skills and found myself pulling back on explorations of legal process. Now, if I find myself wearing my law-professor hat while working on a book, I ask myself whether the information builds plot, character, or setting. If not, I hit delete. Everything is still accurate, but I no longer feel the need to convince the reader of that with an explanation.

In Angela’s attempts to piece together the truth about Jason, she often discovers the latest developments from the news or social media. Even though she’s outside of the system, she’s getting churned through it.”

Many of my books draw on experiences in the criminal justice world from the perspective of actors working within it, from prosecutor (Samantha Kincaid) to detective (Ellie Hatcher) to defense attorney (Olivia Randall).

The Wife is in one sense a departure because Angela Powell is completely outside of the legal system. In fact, she knows nothing about it – she doesn’t even watch crime TV or follow true-crime stories. She is not a defendant, who is at least being advised by an attorney. She’s just the wife – struggling to keep her splintering life intact, with no one on her side. Meanwhile her husband Jason, whether guilty or innocent, has a motive to keep her in the dark. His defense against accusations of sexual misconduct rests on consensual extramarital affairs. For him, to be criminally innocent makes him culpable in the marriage. On the other side, police are tracking Angela as a potential witness. She is cornered, but has no voice in the legal process.

In Angela’s attempts to piece together the truth about Jason, she often discovers the latest developments from the news or social media. Even though she’s outside of the system, she’s getting churned through it. Her entire future is at stake, and she’s a pawn getting worked by both sides.

The Wife is by no means a procedural, but the criminal justice system serves almost as a central character in the novel – omnipresent and all-powerful. Even when Angela is alone in her house, she knows that police, lawyers and judges are out there, making decisions over which she has no control – decisions that could change everything for her. It’s a story I wouldn’t have been able to write had I not been part of that system.


Alafair_Burke_290_deepAlafair Burke is the New York Times-bestselling author of ten previous novels, the most recent of which, The Ex, was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. She also co-authors the bestselling Under Suspicion series with Mary Higgins Clark. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan. The Wife is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99). Read more

Author portrait © Deborah Copaken Kogan

Read an extract from The Wife