Burke was born in Texas, but has lived in Southern California most of her life. She comes from a close-knit family, and remains close to her parents, two sisters and a brother. Burke's husband is musician Tim Burke, whose bands include Bushtaxi. She attended California State University, Long Beach, and graduated with a degree in history.
She worked as a researcher on an oral history project interviewing "Rosie the Riveters." Later she became the manager of a manufacturing plant for a large corporation.
She completed her first novel, Goodnight, Irene in the evenings after work. It was sold unagented and unsolicited to Simon & Schuster. She received a surprising boost from a new fan when, during his first White House interview after taking office, President Bill Clinton said he was reading Goodnight, Irene.
Burke edited the first edition of Breaking and Entering , a Sisters in Crime's guide to gettingpublished. She served as an Associate Editor on Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America , edited by Sue Grafton. She is a longtimemember of Sisters in Crime and has served on the national boards of Mystery Writers of America and the American Crime Writers League.
Burke is the founder and director of the Crime Lab Project, an organization working to raise awareness of the problems facing crime labs and the need to obtain better funding for forensic science. She is a past president of the Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and has served on MWA's National Board.