Hallelujas for Linda Fairstein’s latest

“Silent Mercy” by Linda Fairstein, Dutton Adult, March 8, 2011. 367 pp. $26.95. $26.95. Available at Island bookstores and libraries.

I’m reading Dennis Lehane’s latest and there’s a Baldacci waiting in the wings. Lehane’s is good and Baldacci will be a page-turner. “Silent Mercy” is lucky number 13 for Linda Fairstein, her best read to date. As of press time, the Edgartown Library had 94 requests for the book.

Ms. Fairstein, a former New York sex crimes prosecutor and part-time up-Island author this month offers her 13th novel featuring Alexandra Cooper, New York sex crimes prosecutor and part-time up-Island resident.

I’m telling you that even if you don’t like mysteries and crime novels, you’ll like this book, particularly if you love the Island or New York City. Alex has changed in this one.

In previous books in the series, Alex can show up as the contemplative sort. In “Silent Mercy,” she puts the pedal down on page one and keeps it there until the dénouement in Nantucket Sound.

The Island is a constant reference point in the Alex Cooper series but in this one, we take a central role in the plot. In her acknowledgments, Ms. Fairstein gives props to Holly Nadler, our resident ghost writer, and to Vineyard Gazette reporter Mike Seccombe for ideas from their work, which informed her plot.

Thinking about the genre, Ms. Fairstein separates her work from others because she brings the grittiness of her career to the pages. Her dialog isn’t as gritty as Lehane or as terse as Lee Child’s. But unlike most crime novelists, she worked in gritty for a long time and it shows. For example, in “Silent Mercy” courtroom scenes, victims are pawns in power struggles involving self-righteous clerics and ambitious politicos.

Second, she uses the digging skills of her craft to inform the story with authentic historical context, weaving it into the plot. The author has researched the hell out of “Silent Mercy,” a tale of a psychotic religious nut who’s committed to sending women ministers to fiery ends because, well, they are women ministers.

The plot

The book begins with a simple service on the steps of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem in which a headless, mutilated corpse is burning. Alex’s longtime sidekick Mike Chapman, NYPD homicide detective, catches the case, and Alex has the prosecutorial end.

And we’re off on a landscape of bizarre religious, er, practices, as well as a first-rate historical account of more traditional religious practice and the edifices in which they have been held over the last two centuries in New York City.

Ms. Fairstein has done thorough scholarship here, creating a mural of the demographic flow in Manhattan neighborhoods through six well-known churches, including Mount Neboh, St. John the Divine, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and others, including the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Union Theological Seminary, where our heroes find themselves searching for clues for their ecumenical killer.

There’s more. We learn, on our killer’s trail, that there are actually a spate of new churches in this country that teach fist fighting and martial arts as a form of worship. The basic idea evidently is that salvation comes from kicking the everlasting bejeesus out of your fellow congregants. A Google search for Christian martial arts brings up many sites, such as christianmartialarts.agapy.com, saying more than 700 knuckle-dusting ministries exist in this country.

That’s another benefit of the scholarship here. Gets you thinking about what we’re thinking in the good old U S of A. For those of us who had enough early religiosity to last a lifetime, “Silent Mercy” is a no-stress way to approach the subject and the issues around religion.

The book continues to tease an ongoing theme in the series: the relationship between an Ivy-educated trust fund baby (Alex) turned sex crimes prosecutor and her Irish street cop sidekick (Mike Chapman). After reading a couple of novels in the series, I’d like to see Alex come to her senses here.

I want her to dump the French chef boyfriend and put Mike in relationship lockdown. Luc may be terrific at foie gras. Mike’s more comfortable with turkey and Swiss on rye with extra onions. But Alex, I’m just sayin’, who’s got your back when the whackos show up?