An Interview with Linda Fairstein
Author of Lethal Legacy, latest in the Alex Cooper series.
Linda Fairstein’s latest novel Lethal Legacy is the eleventh thriller to feature Alex Cooper. Lethal Legacy has made several bestseller lists (Barnes and Noble, New York Times & Washington Post), so we were thrilled when Linda, one of America’s leading experts on violent crimes against women and children, graciously agreed to an interview with Mostlyfiction.com. For more information about this author and her books, visit her wonderful website www.lindfairstein.com.
MF: Please describe LETHAL LEGACY for our readers.
LINDA FAIRSTEIN (LF): Lethal Legacy is the 11th book in my series of crime novels featuring Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Alex Cooper, and her two favorite NYPD detectives, Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace. It has been my “self-branding” to explore many of the city’s famous landmarks in each of the books – places that look so elegant and refined from the outside, but are seething with mystery and mayhem once you scratch beneath the surface or learn some of the dark history. I’ve done museums and art galleries, Poe’s cottage and the underground water tunnels, abandoned islands in the harbor with military history, and the cultural heart of the city – Lincoln Center. This time, Coop finds herself in the murderous mix at the New York Public Library, and learns that the two iconic lions who decorate the front steps are really there to protect the incredible treasures inside. Rare books, antique maps, valuable first editions and greedy patrons are the centerpiece of the story, as the investigation leads the team deep underground through secret passages and collections to die for. You can see some of the magnificent rooms in a short video on my website, www.lindfairstein.com.
MF: LETHAL LEGACY includes a great deal of information about The New York Public Library, rare books and maps as well as crime solving techniques. How much research was involved in the novel? Did the fact that some of the research involved rare books make it fun? Were you allowed full access?
LF: I’m one of those writers who adores the research process. I’ve got a generous friend who is a trustee of the NYPL, and she introduced me to the head of the research division – David Ferriero, to whom the book is dedicated. Despite my fear that crime fiction wouldn’t be "literary" enough to be taken seriously by the great institution and its curators, David really embraced my project. As a result, I had stunning access to the physical building itself – and the seven stories of stacks (88 miles of books!) beneath Bryant Park – as well as to many of the rarest items in the collection. I spent weeks at the library, going back day after day to examine the glorious papers in the map division, and reading manuscripts from some of the most superb writers of all times. It was thrilling to hold letters written by Keats and Dickens, to see the first Gutenberg Bible brought to America, to study photographs and drawings more than a century old. I had so much fun doing the research that it was hard to draw that phase to a close and start to write my novel.
MF: How do you get the ideas for your novels?
Like most writers, I’m always plotting. Whatever I’m doing and whoever I’m with, I think I’m subconsciously making mental notes of characters, interesting dialogue, scenes and settings. For me, the first thing I do is select a world that I want to enter – in this case, the fascinating intrigue within the world of rare book collectors – and begin my research. It’s my thirty years as a prosecutor that has had me immersed for so long in the authentic crime investigation piece of the work, and so many of the ideas grow out of issues that I worked on in the district attorney’s office and motives from real cases I handled.
MF: Readers know that many of Alex’s favourite restaurants mentioned in your novels are real places, and that they happen to be some of your favourite restaurants too. She’s featured prominently in all eleven of your novels. How much do you identify with Alex Cooper? Does she ever seem like a real person to you?
LF: You mean Alex Cooper isn’t a real person???? I talk to her all the time. What does that say about me? Alex represents all of my professional passions – her love for the job she has, her involvement with the victims, the great collegiality with co-workers and cops – that’s all pulled straight from real life. I take enormous liberties with her personal side – she’s younger, thinner and blonder than I am, she’s got that trust fund I never had, and still a lively romantic set of interludes. It’s terrifically good fun to have a fictional alter ego, and to let her enjoy some of my fantasies, both professionally and personally. And the girl has to eat somewhere, so why not let her dine at all my favorite restaurants?
MF: You’ve had a tremendously successful legal career and you’re now an extremely successful author. What led you to a writing career? Any regrets that you didn’t start writing novels earlier?
Sometimes I pinch myself when I think of what both careers have meant to me. All through my adolescence, I dreamed of being a writer. It’s the reason I went to Vassar College, to major in English literature. My father, whom I adored, used to roll his eyes and say, “But you have nothing to write about. You need to have a career.” I decided that the law was a wonderful way to pursue a career in public service, so I took a detour to law school right after college. The criminal justice system was not very welcoming to women in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but I got my toe in the door of the great New York County District Attorney’s Office when I graduated in 1972, and fell in love with the work. Yes, I wish that I could have started writing novels earlier, but the prosecutorial job was truly a 24/7 kind of life, and in fairness to the cases I had to handle, I needed to devote all my attention to that work. Now, the combination of passions has really made those early dreams come true.
MF: As a lawyer, you can fight for your case, but you can’t pre-determine an outcome. Due to the fact you can pre-determine or control a novel’s conclusion (and the behavior of its characters), is writing a lot more satisfying?
LF: This is a terrific question. Often, in the criminal law, I knew more about my defendant than the jury would ever be allowed to hear. So you’re right – even when the prosecutors and judges and defense attorneys know of a suspect’s guilt, I couldn’t always prove it. So, yes, it’s a delight for me to pick the bad guy…and then lay in all the clues along the way to make sure he is properly brought to justice in all of my novels. So far……
MF: As the former head of Manhattan’s Sex Crimes Unit, do you feel compelled to slip the occasional warning into your novels about potential tricks women may face from attackers? If so, would you give us a couple of examples?
LF: All of the books are meant to entertain, of course. But I do think they educate as well. And yes, many of the stories use facts from real cases, not so much as a teaching tool but in order to draw from the reality of what criminals do. Lethal Legacy opens with a victim who had opened her door to a man dressed as a fireman after she smelled fire and saw smoke in her hallway through a peephole. That means of gaining access to an apartment was based on a real case from several years back – it led to a different crime, but I was absolutely fascinated by the perp’s modus operandi. What woman wouldn’t open her door to a fireman under those circumstances? I thought it was a clever criminal ruse. In Death Dance, the victim is killed in the Metropolitan Opera House during a performance – yet no one hears a sound because the entire building is soundproofed so that rehearsals won’t interfere with actors on stage. In 1980, the infamous “murder at the Met” occurred when a young violinist encountered a killer backstage between acts, and no one heard her screams for help.
MF: Is your fictional book thief, Eddy Forbes based on real-life experiences?
LF: Yes, Eddy Forbes is based on treacherous map thief named Forbes Smiley. Smiley made national headlines several years back for his thefts from the NYPL and major libraries all over America and abroad. Again, I was drawn to him because he was a scholar and a collector, so he was well-received at all these institutions, just as he was in the process of betraying them by surreptitiously stealing incredibly valuable maps and prints from their collections.
MF: Which of all your Alex Cooper novels is your favorite? Why?
LF: Lethal Legacy is my personal favorite. Not just because it’s the newest book in the series, but because I love books and libraries, and the chance finally to get into that world and study every aspect of it makes it, to me, a bibliophile’s book. It’s rich with history and intrigue, and I learned so much along the way that I was anxious to pass that along to my readers.
MF: Do you think you might ever write a mystery without Alex Cooper?
LF: Yes, I do. Of course, I want to keep the series going – I have an endless bunch of ideas for Coop. But I also have ideas for stand-alones…and then, I’d love to write a novel from Mike’s perspective. All I need is time!
MF: What are the essential ingredients for a gripping police procedural series?
LF: I love procedurals. For me, they reflect the authenticity of the work that my colleagues and I did for so many years. I think pacing is critical, and I count on the authentic techniques of policing, forensic science, and courtroom style to engage the reader. A strong sense of place helps, and dialogue is a very important factor. But the key is to get the procedure right and the pace moving briskly along.
MF: When you write a novel, do you consciously add details about Alex’s private life? Do you find that you have to create a balance between the mystery and Alex’s life, and if so do you ever have difficulty maintaining that balance?
LF: I think that the protagonist’s life is an important piece of the plot if you are writing series fiction, as I do. As a reader, I know that I return to the books in which I’ve connected with the characters. I want to know what they are on to next, how their work has impacted their personal lives, how they mature and evolve. I don’t find it hard to weave Alex’s social life and personal experience into the stories – perhaps because I know how the work I did – and she does – mixed with my own experience. The most difficult balance for me to achieve in writing these novels? It’s the decision about what to do with the sexual tension between Coop and Chapman – that’s the most driving issue in the mail I get from readers!
MF: You’ve had a fascinating career: The high profile Chambers case and the Central Park Jogger case. Over all those years, is there any case that still troubles you or sticks out in your mind for some reason?
LF: There are always cases that haunt me after thirty years on the job. One that really sticks with me has never been solved….and I expect the cold case unit will look at it again, although there wasn’t much in the way of forensics to revisit. It was the murder of a young Brazilian woman who was killed jogging in the park early one morning in the late 1990’s. I’d love to think we can bring her killer to justice someday.
MF: What’s next?
LF: Coop will be back next February with her next caper – still untitled – but set in the world of political intrigue and scandal. The historical aspect takes her into the only three Federal-period mansions still standing in Manhattan, all of which have political roots – and whose three owners were involved in a murder trial three centuries ago. So city politics and sex scandals and murder, of course - all connected to human trafficking, with a dramatic link to New York City’s rich history.
MF: Sounds great! Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts with us.
Read our review of Lethal Legacy at MostlyFiction.com