Review: The Ex by Alafair Burke

The Ex by Alafair Burke follows a woman who agrees to help an old boyfriend who has been framed for murder—but she begins to suspect that she is the one being manipulated. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Olivia Randall, a top New York defense attorney, and Jack Harris, bestselling fiction author, broke it off years ago—before either of them were at the top of their game. The fallout from that break-up has haunted each one of them for years, but they have kept their distance. 

Then, Jack is accused of a multiple-victim shooting. Gunshot residue is found on his shirt, video surveillance has him in the area at the time of the shooting, and one of the victims was involved in the death of Jack’s wife. So he has motive, opportunity, and a growing pile of evidence against him. He desperately needs help. The best. 

Re-enter Olivia Randall. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she knows Jack couldn’t have done such a horrible, violent act. She decides to represent him—partly because her gut tells her he’s innocent and partly to assuage the guilt that has gnawed at her for years after their break-up. But as the circumstances surrounding the shooting become clearer, Olivia’s faith in Jack becomes murkier. Is the man she once loved capable of murder after all?

Alafair Burke’s Edgar-nominated novel The Ex is a layered and engaging read. In Olivia Randall, Burke has created a main character with flaws aplenty—Olivia could easily be accused of sleeping around, using unfair tactics, and being rather abrasive—but she has enough heart and verve to inspire readers to keep the pages turning. 

In his now-famous 2006 Equality Now speech, writer and director Joss Whedon posed this question to himself, pretending to be a reporter: “So why do you write these strong women characters?” To which he answered himself, “Because you’re still asking that question.” 

That quote kept flitting through my head as I read The Ex. Burke has hammered another nail in the coffin of “wimpy women characters” with every female character in this novel. Starting with Olivia—the tough attorney who years ago chose her own way. In her relationship with Jack, Olivia knew that they weren’t right for each other. She had her path to follow, and he had his. 

Olivia is a multi-faceted character. Definitely three-dimensional. Sure, she doesn’t always understand social cues or the other person’s point of view off the bat. But once it’s explained to her, she tries to be sensitive. For example, when meeting Buckley—Jack’s teenage daughter—for the first time, Charlotte (an old friend of Jack’s who is unafraid of dropping a f-bomb or two) tells Olivia to treat Buckley like an adult. She’s told to “give it to Buckley straight.” And she does but immediately regrets it. 

“Olivia, Buckley may look like Taylor Swift’s little ginger-haired sister but she’s an old soul with the IQ of—I don’t know, some person too smart for me to have heard of. And, Buckley, not everyone gets you, okay? Get over it. Now, both of you: sit. Why the fuck is Jack under arrest?”

I looked at Charlotte to make sure this was really how we were going to do this, and then launched in, telling Buckley that her fears were correct. “The police think your father was involved in the shooting this morning at the waterfront. If I had to guess, they’ll be making an announcement any minute now.” 

Involved?” Charlotte asked. “Like, how is he involved? They can’t just go around holding witnesses, can they?  Don’t they need a material witness warrant? Some special order from a terrorism court or something?”

By now, Jack would be getting booked at MDC. He’d soon experience the shock of his first encounter with a real jail cell. He’d be wondering whether he’d ever sleep in a room alone again, on a mattress more than three inches deep, or use a toilet that wasn’t made of metal, or take a private shower. 

“They’re not holding him as a witness.” I fixed my gaze directly on Buckley. “They think your father did this. They think he was the shooter.” 

Buckley looked five years younger as her face puckered with confusion, then outrage. She looked like what she was: a terrified little girl. 

Then, Buckley runs off. Charlotte calls Olivia to task for not being sensitive to Buckley’s situation. Later, Olivia makes it up to Buckley. She sits the teenager down and explains everything in a way that Buckley can understand.

I was surprised when she sat next to me on the bed. “So how reliable is that gunshot powder test you told me about?”

“Have you ever used baby powder and you keep finding it everywhere for days because it sticks to everything?” She was nodding. “So gunshot residues are even finer than talcum powder. You can’t even see them. They get transferred from surface to surface. So if a police officer fired a gun in training and then leaned against a wall in the police station—”

“And then my father leaned against the same wall—”

“Exactly.” I realized I should have explained all of that when I told her about the GSR results. 

“You’re a really good lawyer, right?”


“Like, you get people off even when they’re guilty?”

“That’s probably happened more than a few times.” 

“Just do your best to help my dad.” 

The strong women in this novel are not limited to the main character. Buckley, the teen daughter, is smart, savvy, perhaps a little sensitive, and filled with a certain level of bluster—she’s the one who insists that she can “handle it” but is overwhelmed when facts hit her. Charlotte, Jack’s oldest friend is from family money but started a website covering New York life. Even Olivia’s college roommate, Lissa, is the owner and operator of a café. There are no slouches anywhere on these pages. 

The Ex moves seamlessly between the past—Jack and Olivia’s relationship—and the present—everything surrounding the shooting. Burke blends the character layers and development seamlessly, creating a story that’s fascinating to explore. Every decision made has an impact. Every character action affects another character’s life. Every page turns on its own.


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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.


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