Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Linda Fairstein

LINDA FAIRSTEIN, America's foremost legal expert on crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence, led the Sex Crimes Unit of the District Attorney's Office in Manhattan for twenty-five years. A Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, she is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Her first novel, Final Jeopardy, introduced the critically acclaimed character of Alexandra Cooper and was made into an ABC Movie of the Week starring Dana Delaney. The celebrated series has gone on to include several New York Times bestsellers. The 13th in the series, Silent Mercy, will be released in March. Her novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Her nonfiction book, Sexual Violence, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives with her husband in Manhattan and on Martha's Vineyard.

There is a wonderful grace period between the moment I finish the very last copy edit of my latest novel and the day it appears on shelves in libraries and bookstores.  I can’t do another thing to change the story or to correct words, down to the last typo, and no one has yet had a chance to post a snarky review or unpleasant comment.  I’m in that wonderful time warp right now, until SILENT MERCY bursts out of its boxes on March 8th, so I am delighted to be back with Kaye and friends to reflect on one of my favorite aspects of the series I write.

There was never any doubt when I started to create characters that my protagonist would mirror the work that I did in New York City, where I was a sex crimes prosecutor for thirty years.  And I knew that I had a phalanx of great partners from the office and the NYPD with whom to surround her.  The other thing of which I was certain, as a lifelong devotee of crime novels and mysteries, is that I never liked stories that were simply shoot-outs or car chases.  I love closing a book after time well spent with interesting people having learned something as well – from Agatha Christie’s intense research into poisons or places to Michael Connelly’s dead-on depictions of police procedure.

I was well aware that one of the gifts of my long prosecutorial experience was the opportunity it provided to me to get beyond the fa├žade of some of the most interesting places in the city.  The job often took me behind the scenes, helping me understand that even the most glittering and glamorous venues had some dark doings behind the fancy fronts, if one only scratched the surface.

My eyes were opened wide when a young woman doctor was murdered while working late one night in her office in a large city hospital, and I realized that the population of patients, staff, visitors, and vendors (food, laundry, supplies, florists and so) passing through Bellevue on a single day was larger than the populations of most towns in America.  That became the impetus for LIKELY TO DIE.   When one of the most upscale art gallery owners in the world was implicated in two gruesome murders – and his gallery was on the same floor of a building as my hair salon (!) – the grittier side of the art world became my learning curve for COLD HIT.  The most beautiful landmarked ruins in the city stand at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, and I drove past them on the way home from my office every night, where they were so elegantly back-lit against the dark sky.  Designed by the same architect who created the soaring St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue – James Renwick – most of us assumed they had been the palatial home of a wealthy baron a century ago.  A bit of research under my belt, I learned the stunning building had been a smallpox hospital, to which many New Yorkers were shipped across the river, never to return.  Instead, they wound up in THE DEADHOUSE, as the small morgue behind the grand structure was known.  And when I learned that there were 50 million human bones collecting dust on shelves in the fabulous Museum of Natural History – the first place almost every child in the city is taken to see dinosaurs and animal dioramas – I couldn’t understand why those people hadn’t been buried in their homelands, with their families.  The terrible history of our 19th century obsession to collect and study the remains of ‘other’ cultures is what gave birth to such museums, originally called cabinets of curiosity.  And getting to tour four stories below the street, where there are endless shelves of jars full of insects and reptiles I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, the idea for THE BONE VAULT came to life.  When a violinist was killed between acts during a performance of the Berlin Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House, it seemed hard to believe that she could disappear with four thousand people sitting in their seats in front of the curtain.  Beverly Sills allowed me to come backstage to learn the ins and outs of Lincoln Center, which became the centerpiece of Coop’s sixth adventure in DEATH DANCE.

One of the questions I’m always asked in bookstores on tours is whether I worry about running out of material.  I’m quick to say that I can’t imagine that’s the case, in this city that is so rich with history, even in the few short centuries of its existence as a metropolis.  The more I write, the more someone points me in the direction of some other treasure with roots to the past, and a bit of evil I can probably uncover.

I have always been fascinated with – and respectful of – the great religious institutions of New York.  There are hundreds of them here, of every denomination, and it’s hard to walk a block or two without passing something – whether a very grand structure or a tiny neighborhood church.  I decided to explore some of those in SILENT MERCY.  The book opens on the steps of Mount Neboh Baptist Church, which is a well-established congregation in the heart of Harlem.  Once, when I was investigating a crime on a nearby street, I paused to walk inside the church.  I was startled to see a Star of David in the stained glass windows high above me, and inscriptions in Hebrew.  It didn’t take much to find out that like many other churches in Harlem, Mount Neboh was originally constructed as a synagogue, at a period in time when Harlem –before the 1920’s was a Jewish neighborhood.

As soon as I told friends the direction of my research, everyone had ideas of places for me to visit – some well-known, others more obscure.  I had often been to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but never new that was an ‘original’ St. Patrick’s, built 200 years ago, when the center of the population of New York was way downtown, not far from the courthouse.  The old cathedral has been gloriously restored and was just dedicated as a ‘basilica.’  One night while speaking at an event for Sisters in Crime, when I mentioned the theme of the novel, a young woman raised her hand and asked me whether I knew the story of the stained glass windows at the old Cathedral.  (By the way, her name is Hilary Davidson – and she writes a wonderful crime novel herself – the first one just out last year is THE DAMAGE DONE).  Of course, you’ll have to read SILENT MERCY to find out exactly what Hilary told me.

So I’m back to scratching beneath the surface to find out more about New York’s buried treasures.  Wherever I go, I can’t stop plotting ways for Coop and Chapman to get the real story, above or below ground, and weave some interesting history into a lively tale.  I hope Kaye invites me back to tell you what I find.  Happy reading to all in 2011.


WS Gager said...

Linda: What a great post. Thanks so much for inviting her Kaye. I've read many of your Coop/Chapman books and have enjoyed the many places you describe. I just finished Entombed and loved the references to Edgar Allen Poe and his life. As I read your post I realized that many times when I do research, the actual truth behind things are much better and stranger than what I was creating and the same seems true for your research of places in New York.
W.S. Gager

Maryannwrites said...

Enjoyed the post and finding out some of the latest on what you have been doing. I have read most of your books and look forward to this latest one.

Mason Canyon said...

Linda, enjoyed your post very much. I hate to admit that I haven't read any of your books (yet), but I am definitely going to change that.

Kaye, thanks for introducing me to a wonderful 'new to me' author and more great books to read.

Thoughts in Progress

Diane said...

Thank you for such an interesting post. I love your books and I love NYC. I will be in line-up for your new release in March. As for running out of material, I agree, impossible! Thanks for all the enjoyment you have provided with your books. The subject matter is always so artfully handled.

Vicki Lane said...

I always enjoy the strong sense of place in Linda's books -- especially since I'm unfamiliar with NYC.

Julie Kramer said...

This is one of my favorite series. I love the sophisticated insight into prosecuting sex crimes as well as how New York history is woven in. I've been a fan since Final Jeopardy and can hardly wait til March 8 to see what's next for Alex Cooper. My calender is marked.

lil Gluckstern said...

Thank you for this. I loved your books precisely because I was raised in New york, and get to "visit" again. I like your sense of place, and how you integrate a really fine story, and great characters into what feels like a love song to New York

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

I'm a huge fan of Linda's and proud as punch to have her here as a guest.

Mason - I think you'll enjoy discovering this series, which keeps getting better and better.

Wendy said...

great to see you at Kaye's place! REALLY looking the newest Coop, and St. Pat's is one of my absolutely-will-not-miss places in NYC, even if I'm only in for a few minutes. Just love it.......but I'm still recommending Hell Gate left and right to friends-GREAT job on that; can't believe it's time for a new one already!!! Good to see you here; thanks for having her, Kaye!!
Wendy Bartlett

mimja said...

I am excited to discover this series. I am particularly interested in Roosevelt Island. There is something haunting about that place, so quiet across from the dizzying Manhattan yet so close. The new tram makes the trip something like a hot air balloon ride to another time of asylums and quarantines.

AliasMo said...

If anything could make me want to live in New York, it would be your books, Linda, but I suspect the hassles of day-to-day city living would wear on a confirmed suburbanite like me. I loved learning about the sandhogs and the kidnap victim buried in the park, the public library and other bits of NYC culture and lore. I run about 20 percent on the Final Jeopardy questions. Can't wait for the new book.

I had the pleasure of meeting you, Linda, at Murder 203 in 2009 and encourage others to look for an opportunity to do the same. You are a wonderful speaker, gracious and generous writer.