Linda Fairstein's newest novel, ENTOMBED, is a chilling tale whose inspiration comes straight out of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In her Acknowledgement at the end of the novel she says, "My first encounter with … Poe's TALES OF THE GROTESQUE AND ARABESQUE made an indelible impression on my adolescent imagination. A dead man's heart beating beneath the floorboards, the huge pendulum descending on a prisoner in the pit, the Red Death invading the festive masquerade, and the repeated torment of premature burial and entombment behind cellar walls --- each of these narratives was responsible for youthful nightmares, and all of them lured me back … to delight in their dramatic power. My greatest pleasure in plotting this book was the opportunity it provided to reread all of Poe's writings." This experience provided the architecture around which Fairstein framed the best novel she has written to date. She expands the universe that her ensemble characters inhabit and spins a creepy tale worthy of the master of the macabre.
Alexandra Cooper, the bold ADA who runs the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, was on her way to meet friends at a seminar hosted by NYU Law School. As she approached the entrance a guard redirected her to another location. She arrived at a brownstone that had been purchased by the university and was "being torn down [to be replaced by] an enormous new structure. The dean had a construction crew in the basement, using crowbars to break down pieces of the wall … as part of the show for the evening's alumni dedication ceremony for the new school building."
When Alex and her friends stepped down to the site they were greeted with "the shrill screech of a woman." They "walked toward the [center] of the commotion" and when Alex moved close enough to see what was happening she was shocked to be looking at "perfectly smooth ivory-colored bones [that] framed in the empty orbital sockets that met [her] horrified stare. [Alex] was face to face with a human skull, buried behind the ancient wall." This woman had been buried alive, in the tradition of some of the characters in Poe's most horrific tales.
Ironically, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife had lived in this house for some time, thus sending the tabloids into a frenzy with sensational stories about the "bones in the basement." But forensic anthropologist Andy Dorfman finds a bag of poison that was packaged 1978, which means the body can't be older than that. "Dorfman was a perfectionist, a brilliant detail man who … had been a leader in this specialty long before recent television shows and popular media made his work seem chic. These bones are gonna talk to Andy. They're gonna tell him everything," said Mike Chapman, one of the two detectives who worked closely with Alex Cooper.
The forensic anthropologist's job is to examine the skeleton and help to identify her, which hopefully will allow the NYPD to find her killer. He observes that she was at one time a well-taken-care-of female who, based on the condition of her upper teeth, became a drug user, an alcoholic or both. Investigators are put to work sifting through files of women who went missing about the time of this grisly murder.
While all of this is going on, a young exchange student, Anika Jenkl, is raped and almost killed. Her attacker appeared out of nowhere when she returned home not far from where Alex Cooper is staring at a skeleton. The MO fits that of a serial rapist who vanished four years ago, and Alex is convinced he has resurfaced. When he first started terrorizing Manhattan the papers nicknamed him "The Silk Stocking Rapist," but he was never caught. The statute of limitations in New York is only five years to prosecution for rape, and time is running out for his early victims. Alex decides to take out a "John Doe" warrant based on the DNA found at the attack scenes and on his victims.
Walker Mercer is one of the only "first-grade" detectives in the NYPD, and one of the few African Americans to hold that distinction. He left his position to work more closely with Alex because he preferred to be with the victims, whose recovery from their trauma could be aided by a relationship with a compassionate investigator. He was helping Anika Jenkl as part of the task force tracking down the rapist.
After the reportage of the rape, another woman is victimized but this time she is brutally murdered. This is not the MO of the Silk Stocking Rapist. Is a copycat now operating in the high rent districts of New York City? Since nobody on the team believes in coincidence the other compelling question is: Could this woman be connected in any way to the skeleton in the brownstone? After all, they would both be the same age and were found within the same geographic boundaries.
The cases offer clues, which take Alex and her colleagues, Mercer and Chapman, to the former NYU Bronx campus. There is a small park within the fantastic Botanical Gardens where another "Poe Cottage" still stands. This place was his "last real residence" and a group called "The Raven Society" appropriated it and now calls it home.
The fearsome threesome learns that "the society was formed a century ago to honor Edgar Poe on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. It was conceived as a secret society, membership by invitation only --- just a scholarly tribute to the great poet. It was limited to five members" but in its present incarnation boasts twenty-five. Over the course of their sleuthing, Alex and the boys discover that if Poe had not been a creative genius he easily could have become a serial killer. And rumor has it that in order to be a member of this strange club you have to have killed someone.
Of course the two cases unfold at their own pace, blending clues and red herrings that are adeptly handled by the team. Fairstein's fans come to her books knowing they will find a taut tale of chaos that is tamed by her familiar characters. The regulars further evolve into more fully rounded personalities, which gives readers more insight into their personal lives. Every one of Fairstein's books builds on the last thus demanding that she always be true to her heroes. Her plots and style capture her audience. She is a writer of enviable talent and seamlessly weaves her tales of contemporary crimes with local lore and historical landmarks. For Poe fans and those familiar with the Bronx ENTOMBED is a keeper, rife with nostalgia of another time in New York City.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 21, 2011