You can pick up a Linda Fairstein novel confident that you are in for a whopper of a tale that grabs you from page one. Her engrossing plot lines keep you engaged through the signature historical tour of New York City right up to the rollercoaster endings. SILENT MERCY may be one of the most fascinating detective novels this prolific author has produced.
When the headless body of a young woman is found in flames on the front steps of the Mount Nebho Baptist Church in Harlem, Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper of the New York City Sex Crimes Division and her NYPD partner, Detective Mike Chapman, are summoned to the scene. A witness tells police that he saw a tall, thin man appear to fly over the towering locked iron gates with a large duffel bag over his shoulder that he carefully positioned prominently on the portico of the famous church. The witness was so unsettled by what came next that he fled the scene to hide.
DNA tests disclosed the identity of the victim as a Jewish feminist, active in elevating women to rabbinical roles. When her head is found at St. John the Divine Cathedral, carefully positioned beneath a statue of the Archangel Michael, a pattern begins to emerge. Both churches were originally 19th-century synagogues that had become Christian landmarks as the demography of the city changed over the decades. Their suspect appears to be someone with a deep knowledge of the religious history of New York. Does he also have a deadly agenda?
When a second body --- that of a former Catholic nun who had been ordained as a priest, but was then "silenced" by the Vatican --- is found at the original St. Patrick's Cathedral, hidden behind bricked walls deep within the SoHo district of lower Manhattan, their worst fears of a religiously fanatic serial killer are confirmed. The search then widens.
Fairstein offers penetrating insights into the tumultuous history of women's growing leadership roles in religious institutions. Alex Cooper is currently trying a case against a priest charged with molestation. When she leans too hard on the diocese Bishop, she discovers firsthand that the strong ties in the power struggle between church, state and politics reach from the police department, City Hall and even the District Attorney's office, directly to Rome. She's pulled from the case. The age-old practice of cover-up and denial from higher officials frustrates Alex's efforts to access data that may help solve the murders.
When a third woman disappears, all attention is focused on the murders. Alex and her partner start putting the puzzling pieces together. They embark on a harrowing five-state chase across the Northeast corridor in search of the killer's identity.
Fans of Fairstein will also enjoy the rich past of five of New York's most famous churches. An added bit of history unfolds about a tiny, remote islet off the coast of Nantucket Island, but it would be a spoiler to divulge even a hint of the background of that piece of real estate. It would take a "Jeopardy!" nerd to know how to piece together the clues that lead them to the killer. Readers of Fairstein can lay odds that the champion "Jeopardy!" nerds of all time, Alex and Mike, tapped their bottomless pit of knowledge to help solve this crime.
In all good novels, there is more than chase and capture, cars and guns. There is the rich tapestry of setting and the psychology behind the crime. This is where Fairstein shines. As the former Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the DA's office in New York City, and a long-time history buff, she brings to her novels a level of authenticity like few other authors. Not recommended bedtime reading if you have an early morning ahead.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on March 28, 2011