Mystery author shows the real work of a district attorney through her novels


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Linda Fairstein was reluctant to lead the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office – something that made her career – back in 1976.

“I was asked to take over by [then-Manhattan District Attorney] Bob Morgenthau. The [SCU] was brand new; it was the first in the country, established in 1975. I was the only woman there who had some experience handling sex crimes, although I was only 29,” recalled Fairstein. “Morgenthau thought it was very important that a woman [lead the SCU to] make it more inviting for victims of sexual violence to trust the prosecutor’s office. He asked me to take over. I was reluctant... but he gave me no choice,” she added, laughing. “I did, and it was the work that kept me there 30 years.”

Fairstein, who lives in Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard, still conducts workshops for prosecutors when not writing her best-selling mystery novels with Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Her 19th novel, Deadfall, was recently released. Her second novel for young readers, Digging for Trouble, debuts November 6.

Fairstein rose to prominence prosecuting Robert Chambers in the highly-publicized “Preppie Murder” case. He pled guilty to manslaughter in the 1986 death of Jennifer Levin in Central Park.

When police questioned Chambers, he had defensive wounds on his face and hands. He changed his story several times, stating Levin raped him. Eventually, he claimed he killed her in self-defense because they were having “rough sex” that went out of control. He served 15 years in prison after being convicted in 1988 (currently, he’s serving 19 years for drugs).

The case became widely-publicized. Chambers even made the cover of People Magazine. In 1989, ABC released a telefilm called The Preppie Murder, with Joanna Kerns of Growing Pains as Fairstein.

To this day, Fairstein still doesn’t understand why the case came to be such a sensation.  “From my perspective, it was driven by the location of the crime: Central Park, which made it a nationally known location. It was two privileged white kids. It involved private schools, alcohol and drug abuse… It was a perfect storm of issues [for] the tabloids. They put it on the front page and kept it there,” she said.

The tabloids dubbed Chambers the “preppie killer,” as his defense team posed him in a navy blazer and red tie – which troubled Fairstein. “It was so inappropriate... it was entirely wrong. He had attended several prep schools and had been thrown out of all of them for drugs,” she said. “He was a drug-addicted dropout...The [term] ‘preppie murderer’ was a total misnomer.”

Fairstein graduated from Vassar College in 1969 with a degree in English literature and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1972.

“I went to law school without any idea of what aspect of law I wanted to work in, but I knew I wanted to do public service. There were very few women litigators in any branch of law back then, civil or criminal,” said Fairstein.

Monrad Paulsen, the dean of UVA Law at the time, was Fairstein’s criminal law professor who found her to be thoroughly engaged in issues surrounding criminal law. He fostered her interest in becoming a prosecutor, which got the attention of then-Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan.

“Hogan was slowly opening his door to women. I got in that door that year,” she said. “[His office] had about 200 lawyers when I graduated in 1972, seven [of whom were] women.”

Fairstein retired from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in 2002. 

“Things had changed so much and for the better. I had 40 lawyers on my team in the [SCU] as opposed to four when I started. We had changed laws in New York to make the system more accessible,” she said. “I thought it was simply time to let other people step in and lead.”

In 1996, she published Final Jeopardy, her first Alex Cooper novel. Fairstein spoke about how people could not understand why she wanted to deal with sex offenders during her prosecutor days, a topic addressed in her books.

“I wanted to show through Alex Cooper it’s a fascinating world,” she said. “I liked [getting people] justice that had been denied for decades. I also wanted to have a very strong woman protagonist. If you know the genre, most of the women main characters were amateur sleuths. From Agatha Christie to Sue Grafton, they were mostly people who stumbled onto crimes and had another job. I was part of what I think was a much newer tradition as women entered the workplace in a variety of ways. Kathy Reichs, who started writing at the same time I did, was one of the few forensic anthropologists in the country. That’s what her character [Dr. Temperance Brennan] does. She shows the real work through fiction; that’s what I wanted to do with Alex.”

Michigan native/author Allison Leotta, a former sex-crimes prosecutor herself, followed Fairstein’s example. Her protagonist Anna Curtis is also a sex-crimes prosecutor.

“As one of the first sex-crimes prosecutors in the country, (Fairstein) transformed the way these heart-wrenching crimes are handled, bringing thoughtfulness, compassion, and scientific rigor to the process. She did this during a time when very few women were even allowed to be prosecutors, opening the door for every female lawyer who hoped to follow in her footsteps. As a writer, Linda is phenomenal. Her Alex  series is packed with suspense, intelligence, and the fascinating details that can only come from someone who truly knows her craft,” said Leotta.

Carrie Smith, another Michigan native and author, cited Fairstein as an inspiration. 

“Linda’s a crime fiction ‘triple threat.’ She’s an expert in the criminal justice system; she knows New York City, past and present; and she can spin a breathtaking story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
When I set out to write my New York City mystery series, I devoured her books and enjoyed every one of them,” said Smith.

In Deadfall, Alex investigates the drive-by murder of a D.A., someone she’s worked with for years. During the investigation, Alex goes from witness to suspect. A tangled web of secrets comes to light – from bribes to secret societies, from big-game hunting to illegal animal trade, from New York zoos to behind closed doors in government buildings.

“In each of the books, I choose a world to go into. It’s my self-branding. I usually pick some aspect of New York City history, a place to explore, something that interests me.,” she explained. “When I left prosecution in 2002, this whole world of endangered animals wasn’t in the scope of law enforcement... [Recently] it’s became a great part of state and federal prosecutions. That interested me. I always liked something new within the framework of the law.”

As Fairstein was writing Deadfall, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died February 13, 2016, at a Texas hunting preserve. The official cause of death was natural causes. Scalia went quail-hunting with members of the International Order of St. Hubertus, a secretive, male-only fraternity of hunters and wildlife conservationists.

“This startled me. It was the last place I expected to find him… I didn’t think of him as a hunter,” said Fairstein. “He took me into a world of people I didn’t expect to be trophy hunters. We had a Supreme Court justice who was in that secret club.”

Fellow best-selling novelist Harlan Coben praised her work.  “Linda not only gives you a great thriller, but I always learn something fascinating from her books,” said Coben.

One of the challenges Fairstein is keenly aware of is keeping Alex fresh and exciting after 21 years and 19 books.

“In Devil’s Bridge, Coop was kidnapped. Most of that book was narrated by [Det. Mike] Chapman, which I did for a number of reasons, including the device of seeing Coop through his eyes after so many books into the series – what he liked about her, what he didn’t like about her, personally and professionally,” she explained. “Killer Look was about her recovery. [In Deadfall], she’s getting back on her feet since she’s been on a leave of absence. I needed something to jolt her back. So I have this murder in her presence. She’s a witness. The feds take over the investigation and she’s a suspect. What really changed in this book – it was a stretch as a writer and great fun to do – was to view her as a suspect the first 100 pages… It’s a very fresh look at her and seeing some of her own techniques being used against her.”

Author/former Michigan State University law professor Anthony Franze called Deadfall Fairstein’s best book yet.  “Linda’s work carries the authenticity of only someone who’s been in the criminal justice trenches – and someone who knows Manhattan like the back of her hand,” said Franze.

Asked how much of her is in Alex, Fairstein laughed. She says the professional part of Alex is all her.

“You can see how Coop loves the work, the collegiality, the passion, the procedural aspects of how these cases work with a little drama thrown in,” she said. “The personal side, however, I take great license and enjoy doing it… I frequently say she’s younger, thinner, blonder. When the series started, she was 35 and 19 books later, she’s 38. Things I can fictionally control, I do. I had fun creating her personal side.”

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