Friday, March 26, 2010

Linda Fairstein at The Poisoned Pen

Linda Fairstein kicked off the program at the Poisoned Pen by saying it was always a pleasure to return since Barbara Peters had believed in her since her first book, Final Jeopardy.

Linda said she had the idea of setting Hell Gate at Gracie Mansion for a couple years. Way back then, she had the odd idea that it might make the perfect setting for a political scandal. That was just about the time of the Eliot Spitzer scandal. Spitzer was the Governor of New York who was discovered to be a client of some ladies of the night. Fairstein said she had worked with Spitzer in the Manhattan District Attorney's office. People who knew him were shaken at the discovery. He was a colleague of hers, and, therefore, a colleague of Alex Cooper's.

Then, there was the true story of the Congressman from Staten Island who was discovered to have two families, one in New York, and one in D.C. That was uncovered when he was in a car accident in D.C., rushing his baby to the hospital. Linda said she didn't know about John Edwards and Governor Sanford of South Carolina when she was writing Hell Gate. If she had, she would have had to tone it down. Truth is really stranger than fiction.

In Hell Gate, Fairstein chose to explore City Hall and the tensions that arise when something happens. There can be conflict between the DA and the Mayor.

New York is one of five cities in America that gave a house for the mayor to live in. In 1942, it became the mayor's house. Gracie Mansion is one of three wooden mansions in Manhattan. Fairstein has a three-minute video of it on her website. Mayor Bloomberg lives in a newer mansion, his own. Hell Gate is the spot of water seen from the vista of Gracie Mansion. Since there's no one living in Gracie Mansion, she could do bad things there. The mansion has been restored, and they let her in to do research. Then, she had her breakfast book launch at Gracie Mansion.

In Hell Gate, Fairstein deals with the chain of command. In past books, she's focused on politics, but has never shown how the political situations developed. There's huge infighting between the DA, the federal prosecutor, and the Mayor. Alex Cooper gets caught in the politics. There's a great deal of spin doctoring, trying to keep some of the political stories out of the news. Alex feels the tension. It's the first time political figures have been involved as suspects.
It doesn't help that in New York, the police commissioner is appointed by the Mayor. This book builds on tension in previous books.

Fairstein has a great deal of Mike Chapman in this book. And, there's a scene with him that allows her to show the domestic side of Alex. Mike Chapman hears his own drummer. He's a compilation of the best and brightest of New York police. Most of the police Fairstein worked with in her position as head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan DA's office, were bright and highly educated. She said they taught her a lot. Mike isn't one person that she knew, although at least ten guys think they're Mike Chapman. But, those police officers were great friends and colleagues.

Linda was asked where the kernel of a new book comes to her. She answered that she asks herself what world does she want to go into. Once she decided this world was politics, she looked for a place to set it. Gracie Mansion was perfect. Then, she added that City Hall was built on a potter's field. In her last book, Lethal Legacy, the New York Public Library was the world and the place. Linda said she's always looking for places. She carries the characters and writing in her head. She said it's cheating to write a series, because those characters become friends, and they're always in her head.

Barbara Peters asked if we could sneak a look at Linda Fairstein's next book. She said there isn't a title yet, but it deals with the religious institutions in the city. A body is found in a Baptist Church in Harlem. Fairstein said there is Hebrew lettering on a stained glass window, and a pediment with a Hebrew date. Until 1920, that neighborhood was home to Jews. There are ten Baptist churches there that were synagogues.

And, everyone knows St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. But, Fairstein said someone told her about old St. Patrick's. St. Patrick's Old Cathedral was built before the current one, and it's in Little Italy. Fairstein went on to say she learned about some of the stained glass windows in the churches from Hilary Davidson. Davidson's day job is to write Frommer's Travel Guides, and she wrote about the stained glass windows. Davidson has a novel coming out, The Damage Done, and Fairstein blurbed it.

Barbara Peters suggested that maybe Fairstein should write a book about the places where Alex has been.

Someone in the audience mentioned the Jennifer Levin case that Fairstein prosecuted. Linda said in 1986 Jennifer Levin was killed behind the Metropolitan Museum by Robert Chambers. After he killed her, he sat on the wall, watched, and waited. People said they talked to him, and saw deep scratches on him. He was 19 at the time. He did fifteen years for murder. Fairstein said it was a case of hubris. He became a drug addict while in prison. Once he got out, he was selling cocaine and heroin out of a very nice apartment. There was an undercover operation; he was arrested, and he's now in jail, perhaps for life, for the sale of drugs.

A gentleman brought up the General Slocum disaster. Barbara Peters said that's interesting because she was giving away an ARC of Stefanie Pintoff's new book, A Curtain Falls, and that passenger ship disaster is mentioned in both of Pintoff's books, her new one, and her Edgar Award nominated, In the Shadow of Gotham. The General Slocum was a passenger ship that caught fire in Hell Gate. It was the single largest loss of life in New York City history until 9/11. Fairstein added that Hell Gate also had the largest man-made detonation until the A-bomb.

Barbara Peters asked Linda to tell the story of her first novel, Final Jeopardy, because she liked it. Fairstein said she was prosecuting full-time when she wrote a nonfiction book that came out in 1993. She thought about writing a novel, and her editor told her not to get carried away. So she took August off in 1995, thinking she would work on a novel. But, it was difficult to write every day at the place where she always enjoyed her vacation. Her husband bet her $1000 that she couldn't finish it by Labor Day. That was lots of money to a public servant. On Labor Day, she typed The End. The challenge spurred her on, and her husband did pay off. Barbara mentioned that Linda's husband is a famous lawyer, and he's used to deadlines. Linda said she was always on deadline in her prosecutorial job. She said the discipline was the hardest for her. She had a full-time day job, and now she had to sit in a room, and not walk on the beach when she was used to vacationing. Now, she loves the process and the people and friends she's made in that world.

When asked about research, Fairstein said research is better than the walk on the beach to get lost in. But, you have to know when to stop. Lethal Legacy is dense, and a slower speed. Hell Gate is a faster paced novel. She and Barbara agreed that when Alex doesn't get a chance to get away to Martha's Vineyard, the novel is a faster paced one. The story dictates the place and the pace. Fairstein said Martha's Vineyard allows Alex to step away from her job, except in the very first book, Final Jeopardy.

If you would like to see Barbara Peters' entire interview with Linda Fairstein, you can find it on YouTube on the Authors Events Channel, here.

Linda Fairstein's website is Check out her video clip about Gracie Mansion.

Hell Gate by Linda Fairstein. Penguin Group (USA), ©2010. ISBN 9780525951612 (hardcover), 400p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sounds like a fast-paced read. Chain of command issues are interesting to me (geeky Poli Sci minor.) I'll have to check this out!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

It was a fast-paced book, Elizabeth. Ah, another of of those Poli Sci people. My sister majored in it. She's a lawyer.

bermudaonion said...

What a great event! I love authors who remember who believed in them way back when.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the birdseye view of the event, Lesa. This is the book that I've decided to jump-to-the-most-recent-of-the-series with. My new attitude about reading a series in order. I'm looking forward to it. I'm also interested in the Stefanie Pintoff book. Sounds good.

Nikki Thornton said...

Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.

Lesa said...

I do too, Kathy. It's very nice when the authors acknowledge the booksellers who were there for them in the beginning.

Lesa said...

And, you'll be just fine jumping to the most recent one, Kay. I'm looking forward to the second Pintoff. I liked the first one.

cindy.maher said...

Thanks for posting this Lesa. I need to get back to reading her books. I've been overwhelmed with so many other books that Ms. Fairstein's have taken a back door and I really enjoyed them. Gee, I think the last one I read was Entombed and that was a while ago.

Luanne said...

Great post Lesa! I'm a big Fairstein fan and just finished Hell Gate - loved it!

jenny milchman said...

Fascinating, specific details as always, Lesa...When you recount an event, I feel as if I were there. I'm a long time fan of Linda's but didn't know all of this stuff about what kind of material drives her to her stories. Thanks!

Also, Kay--Stefanie Pintoff's novel set in old Manhattan is wonderful! It's nominated for an Edgar and she has the second coming out in May!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Cindy. I think the last one I'd read before this was Entombed as well. What happened to us? I have Lethal Legacy, and I heard great things about it being set at the New York Public Library. I do want to read that.

Lesa said...

Luanne - Nice to hear you loved Hell Gate. I really liked Mike Chapman in this one, too.

Lesa said...


That's the nicest compliment, that you feel as if you were there with my recaps. Thank you. I didn't know all of that information either.

Julie Kramer said...

I always learn things from Linda Fairstein's books. Certainly about the legal system, but also about New York history and in the case of HELL GATE, human trafficking.

I thought her latest was among her best.

Lesa said...

I thought Hell Gate was one of her best that I've read, Julie. I have to go back and read Lethal Legacy. I'm looking forward to that one, with the NYPL.

caite said...

I love the NYC settings...I learn so much about a city I thought I knew fairly well.
Seems I don'

Lesa said...

Isn't that fun, though, Caite, when you discover all the things you DON'T know?

Betty C said...

I'm a big fan of the Alex Cooper stories. I haven't been reading them in the order written so I occasionally get a little confused but I don't mind at all. Linda is a great writer and every story has captured my attention immediately.

Lesa said...

I'm glad to hear you're a fan of the Alex Cooper books, Betty. I hope you enjoyed the summary of her appearance at The Poisoned Pen.