Trading Places

The state of Texas has always had its defenders. William Travis. Sam Houston. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. You can add Edgar Award-winning mystery novelist Jan Burke, creator of the hugely popular Irene Kelly series, to the list.

"I was infamous in grade school for my defense of the Lone Star State," the Houston native recalls, even though she left the state at age seven. "And the first question I ventured to ask my new teacher was, 'California is just a part of Texas, isn't it?' "

Nonetheless, California is the location of the fictional coastal city Las Piernas, in which tenacious newspaper reporter Kelly has sniffed trouble in seven previous novels. What makes Burke's new book, Flight, such a departure is that it's told mainly from the point of view of Kelly's husband, Frank Harriman, a police detective who's trying to solve a ten-year-old case involving a murdered family, a disappearing cop and a local crime boss.

"I like to stretch as a writer, and Flight allowed me to write a book that had much more of the world of law enforcement and police homicide investigation," Burke says. When asked if Irene's minor role might make fans feel slighted, the author shrugs it off. "I have a lot of faith in the flexibility of the readers, because the books have never been a simple variation on a theme. And judging from my mail, they already like Frank."

Research always has played an important role in Burke's novels; in fact, it's her favorite part of the writing process. In Flight, we learn that skulls rarely stay connected to the shoulders of rotted corpses like they do in the movies, and that the reward for a search dog who finds a body among the rubble might be an impromptu game of Frisbee. Think about that the next time you're in the park and you spot a pooch with a strange look in his eyes.