In Print : First look at new Fairstein mystery
"Hell Gate" by Linda Fairstein, Dutton Adult, March, 2010, 416 pages, $26.95.
Visitors to New York City occasionally glimpse one of the handful of restored 18th and 19th century manses, most on the edges of Manhattan. Chilmark summer resident Linda Fairstein uses several of them, including the mayor's official residence, Gracie Mansion, as key elements in her latest crime thriller, "Hell Gate."
The hefty book is scheduled for release in March 2010, published by the Dutton imprint of Penguin Books. It is the 12th in Ms. Fairstein's series of crime mysteries that feature protagonist Alexandra Cooper, head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the district attorney's office.
The book takes its name from a turbulent strait in the East River between Astoria, Queens, and Manhattan's Randall's Island that claimed hundreds of ships and their crews during New York's early maritime days. In the novel, a freighter with human cargo has run aground off a beach in Queens, dumping bodies into the cold January water.
Ms. Cooper gets the call because it's become clear that the rusty Golden Odyssey has human cargo that includes women passengers bound for the sex trade. Earlier the same morning, an up-and-coming New York City family man congressman lands in legal hot water over his girlfriend, a development that may be related to the white slavery beaching. Ms. Cooper catches the congressman's case as well.
Her job is to protect women such as the washing ashore eastern European waifs who've been branded with iconic tattoos identifying them as the property of a specific white slaver, or "snakehead" in police jargon.
Ms. Fairstein had that job, protecting women, for 30 years. She spent the last 25 years of her career leading sex crime investigations and trials involving sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and homicide for the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The Vassar and University of Virginia Law school graduate left her legal career in 2002 after writing her first book, "Final Jeopardy," in 1996. Like her protagonist, Ms. Fairstein divides her time between the canyons of Manhattan and the beaches of Chilmark where she and husband Justin Feldman have a home.
Her approach to a female crime-fighting character is different from the norm. Most other popular female crime heroines, like Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, are tough, wrong-side-of-the-tracks characters, talking the spare, staccato street talk of the crime novel genre. They are bounty hunters and private investigators - sleuths without portfolio, so to speak.
Not so Ms. Cooper. She is well-bred, well-educated and well-heeled. Car doors are opened for her. Her speaking style is long and lyrical. Make no mistake, though. Ms. Fairstein talked her fictional talk in her real life. The infamous "Preppy" murders (the prosecution of Robert Chambers in 1988), and a seemingly endless string of "wilding" crimes in that era occurred on her watch.
This reviewer is used to reading crime novels that race to their conclusion, but the uninitiated Fairstein reader must often slow down. This book is a page-turner - but not at top speed. For one thing, there is civility to the dialogue, despite the wisecracking of sidekick cop Mike Chapman. For another, Ms. Fairstein includes a lot of real-life behind the scenes procedural detail that some readers might prefer to skip. But there are benefits to slowing down the read and paying attention to the real life aspects.
For one thing, the author is an experienced New York courtroom lawyer, arguably the world's largest legal circus. She plans carefully and connects the dots. Go too fast and you'll miss something - like the fact that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were co-counsels in one New York trial case.
For another, New York City is a central character in her novels. Manhattan's massive and endlessly fascinating sprawl has been creating history for nearly 400 years, and each of Ms. Fairstein's books plumbs an aspect of city history, twinning her plot line with often seemingly mundane historical antecedents that tie to the plot in innovative ways.
Other novelists as disparate as E.L. Doctorow and Jimmy Breslin have found themselves fascinated with the various workings of the city, like New York's system of water pipes and aqueducts, but Ms. Fairstein provides a decidedly different take on the subject, as demonstrated in her 2007 novel, "Bad Blood." Other Alexandra Cooper plots involve city museums, the public library and Lincoln Center.
Would I like the action to go faster? Yes. Would I like Alex Cooper to be harder, crisper and tougher? Yes. But do I believe that I've read a real account of thinly-disguised crimes and the workings of a politically-tainted big city criminal justice system, written by someone to whom justice is extremely important? Yes.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.