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Interview: March 21, 2008

March 21, 2008

Linda Fairstein’s bestselling legal thriller series featuring Alexandra Cooper continues with its 10th installment, KILLER HEAT.

In this interview with's Carol Fitzgerald and Joe Hartlaub, Fairstein sheds light on how sex offenders choose their victims, based on her experiences heading the Sex Crimes Unit in Manhattan's District Attorney's Office, and explains why she chose to set the plot of her latest work of fiction in little-known New York locations. She also reveals her pet peeve about crime novels and films, and shares which books in her repertoire remain her personal favorites. Your latest book goes a tad off of Alexandra Cooper’s usual grid, as it were, given that much of the action takes place on little known islands off the coast of Manhattan that most people are not even aware of. You obviously did a lot of hands-on research with regard to the various settings. How did you become interested in places like Bannerman Island and Fort Tilder? What can you share with us about your research?

Linda Fairstein: As many of my readers know, I’ve made New York City one of the ‘characters’ in my series of crime novels. I love exploring places and institutions that I’ve seen all my life, most of which seem benign and attractive --- like the Museum of Natural History (my earliest childhood memories of visits to Manhattan start there) and the Met at Lincoln Center. But once you scratch the surface, these very cultural icons have some dark history. In the case of the museum, it’s the presence on dusty shelves of millions of human bones (why weren’t they buried with their ancestors?). And at the Met, the fact that in 1980, a young musician was murdered there while 4,000 people watched the performance, unable to hear her screams because of the theater’s soundproofing.

So this time, Coop goes a bit further off-shore. I’ve long been fascinated by Governor’s Island, which sits just off the southern tip of Manhattan. On my way to work at the DA’s Office, I passed the small ferry terminal (where the first victim’s body is found in KILLER HEAT) every day, but I knew passage there was forbidden. For 200 years, the well-situated island was a military base and off-limits to civilians. When it was opened to the public two years ago, I took the seven-minute ferry ride and was amazed to find the glorious little island --- such a strategic placement in New York Harbor, and therefore New York history --- and its old structures: two fortresses, the governor’s home, the admiral’s quarters, old prisons and so much more. I fell in love with the island, which you can see bits of on the little video on my homepage, and thought my readers would also.

I first saw Bannerman in my college days, on the magnificent train ride up the Hudson, on my way to Vassar. It sat off in the river, designed to look like an old Scottish castle, and captured my imagination. With these first two in mind, I began to explore other ghost islands --- abandoned islands in and around the city. Getting to them was half the challenge, and I think it’s essential in order to write with authenticity about the sights and smells of these places. After the first visit, I did tons of historical research, which is something I enjoy enormously.

BRC: In KILLER HEAT, while Alex is working the murder investigation, she also is in court trying a cold case of rape where the rapist finally is being brought to justice decades after the crime. The combination of these two stories gives readers a snapshot of how a prosecutor juggles more than one case at a time. What was the impetus to include this second storyline in the book?

LF: All my novels have had complex storylines. One of my pet peeves about movies and crime fiction is that when the detective or prosecutor is working on the “big” murder case, everything else on his or her desk comes to a standstill. My 30 years as a prosecutor was nothing like that fictional portrayal. No matter how high-profile the breaking case might be, there is always a trial in progress or a stack of investigations covering the desk. You can try to push some of the work aside or re-assign it, but the truth is that real-life cops and district attorneys are juggling many critical assignments at the very same time. In KILLER HEAT, I told the story exactly the way it happened to me many times in the real job.

BRC: The novel concerns the investigation of a series of violent murders whose victims are very different, yet each has a tenuous but significant link to the killer. Did you ever work on a similar case, or cases, when you worked in the D. A.’s office, where the link among the victims of a singular perpetrator was immediately evident? And were you ever involved in an investigation where the only link among the victims was that they presented an opportunity?

LF: Throughout my career, I worked on scores and scores of cases involving serial sex offenders. As my characters remark to each other, these cases are far more common than the serial killers we encounter so often --- and in KILLER HEAT for the first time in my literary career. There are two extremes in these cases. Early on in my career, I worked on a serial rapist who was very specific in his choice of victims. He stalked women returning to their apartment buildings in a particular neighborhood, and it was clear to us from the outset that there was a physical type he preferred when choosing his victims. Many women escaped his violent attacks because they just didn’t fit his profile --- perhaps a profile that aroused his sexual interest. 

On the other hand, I’ve had many cases that I describe as crimes in which the opportunity of the assailant intersected with the moment of vulnerability of the victim. One high-profile case in New York City comes to mind. In the 1980s, I prosecuted a man dubbed by the media as the midtown rapist --- Russell West. He attacked more than 20 women in upscale midtown office buildings, in broad daylight --- some of the fanciest buildings in the city. When the elevator doors opened on an empty floor, he’d drag them out at knifepoint and rape them. West didn’t seem to care --- his victims ranged in age from their 20s through their 60s --- he had no physical preference and no stereotypical victim. What he had was his window of opportunity to commit the crime.

BRC: In KILLER HEAT, the action at The Brazen Head (owned by Jim Dylan) references underage preppy drinkers. Reading this, we were reminded of the bar Dorrian's Red Hand (owned by Jimmy Dorrian), where Robert Chambers --- who was convicted in the real-life Preppy Murder case that you tried in the 1980s --- met the young woman he ended up killing. That bar had been targeted as serving underage drinkers. Was this reference something deliberate?

LF: None of my characters are based on “real” people, but I do draw motives and traits from individuals I’ve come across throughout the years. The Brazen Head (named for what is reputed to be the oldest pub in Dublin) is a fictional place in New York, of course. And yes, I was always troubled by the underage drinking encouraged and allowed at the bar from which Robert Chambers took Jennifer Levin to her death in 1986. For me, the greater irony is that 20 years later, the same family owned another bar in lower Manhattan --- now closed --- from which a talented and lovely graduate student, Imette St. Guillen, was led to her death in 2006. So the lessons about the dangers of some of these places --- in the latter case, a bar that employed convicted felons to work as bouncers --- were never taken seriously.

BRC: In KILLER HEAT, you named the two bouncers outside of the Ruffle Bar, “Wilson” and “Hank.” I have to ask: Does this perhaps reflect your appreciation for the music of Leon Russell, or is it merely a coincidence?

LF: Whoops --- I like Leon Russell, but that was completely a coincidence. I’d be far more likely to name someone for something in a Smokey Robinson song.

BRC: The Final Jeopardy question finds its way into each of your books at least once and provides readers with something familiar that also highlights the competitive aspect of the camaraderie between Alex and the detectives she works with, Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace. Do you have fun coming up with the questions for these sections of the book? Have you ever been referenced on the quiz show “Jeopardy!”?

LF: I have such a good time when I write the Final Jeopardy questions that keep Alex, Mike and Mercer betting against each other. They have their areas of expertise, as most of the readers who’ve been with me from the outset know, and I get a lot of mail about these sequences. It’s great fun to find a piece of trivia --- as soon as I do, I know which of the three will win the bet. I’m hoping to someday be a category on Jeopardy! Pipe dream, maybe, but last year it happened to my friend Fran Lebowitz, and she loved it. The only reference I know is that when Dana Delaney (who played Coop in the ABC made-for-TV movie of FINAL JEOPARDY) was on the celebrity version of the show, she talked to Alex Trebek about the series.

BRC: Alex has had a pattern of being unlucky in love in your past novels; KILLER HEAT indicates a change in direction. What can your readers anticipate in Alex’s romantic life in the immediate future?

LF: Poor, poor Alex. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get mail about Alex and her love life. Half the readers are rooting for her to come to her senses and hook up with Mike. As Alex explains to her best friend, Nina Baum, she knows she has a very special relationship with Mike --- and strong feelings for him --- but she worries that if she crosses a line, she’ll never be able to work with him again. Too many defense attorneys would be looking to knock him off the witness stand by accusing him of finding evidence or getting admissions from perps because of his romantic entanglement. Fortunately, Alex was introduced to Luc, who is providing a wonderful interlude and seems to understand the professional engagement she has with her work. You’ll see Luc again next year.

BRC: In this book Alex is at a shooting range learning to fire a gun for the first time. Have you ever had training like this? If so, what was the experience like?

LF: My experience at the NYPD shooting range at Rodman’s Neck was pretty much like the way I describe Alex’s day. I am not a fan of guns. I respect their power enormously, and I respect the training the NYPD gives its officers, and the great restraint most of them use every single day on the job. Unlike some fictional protagonists, you won’t see Alex solve many of her dangerous situations with a gun. Mike and Mercer have encouraged her to take the training at the range, because in cases like the one in DEATH DANCE, Coop gets a little closer to a handgun than she’d like and isn’t really prepared to deal with it. I’ve been to Rodman’s Neck (another fascinating place…in the Bronx) several times. Last year, as I was doing my research for KILLER HEAT, I had the distinct feeling while trying to use a very heavy automatic weapon that I was going to kill the nice guy standing next to me. I couldn’t wait to put the gun down. Then they took me to the “virtual” room, which I also describe. It gave me entirely renewed respect for everyone in law enforcement.

BRC: You headed up the Sex Crimes Unit for a quarter-century, and you are regarded as one of the nation’s top legal experts with respect to sexual assault crimes and domestic violence. What has changed, if anything, with respect to the nature of sex crimes between the time when you started with the Sex Crimes Unit and the present? What has stayed the same? And what do you regard as the most important evidentiary tool in the process of bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice?

LF: I could give you several days of lectures (and often do!) on this one. When I joined the New York County DA’s Office in 1972, there wasn’t a special victims’ unit in any police or prosecutor’s office in the country. I arrived at a very serendipitous moment --- the women’s movement of the 60’s had succeeded in forcing the criminal justice system to examine its acceptance of dreadfully archaic laws regarding sexual assault. In my rookie years, I saw the first attempts at legislative reform, and then began to participate in drafting legislation and lobbying for its passage. The year before I started as a prosecutor, more than 1,000 men were arrested in NYC for sexual assault, and only 18 convicted of the crime. The mid-70s saw the elimination of the terrible punitive corroboration requirement (read about it in KILLER HEAT) and then passage of the rape shield law. We pushed and pushed for reform throughout the '70s and '80s. We tried just as hard to educate the public, too, to change attitudes about these crimes. People blamed victims, as they did for no other criminal act. Rapes were greatly underreported because there were so few support services for the victims --- legally, medically and with social services. During the '80s, we began to make progress in this regard. The mainstream media, which had rarely covered these issues, began to write about them. 

Then, in 1986, a breakthrough came from a direction I’d never expected --- the scientific community. For the first time in a forensic setting, I was one of a handful of prosecutors asked to consider using DNA --- now my three favorite letters of the alphabet --- as an investigative tool in a homicide I was working on. It was astounding. I used it for three years to exonerate suspects and to build on leads in cases; but during those long three years, we were never allowed to present it to a jury. No court in America accepted its scientific validity. Once we passed that hurdle in 1989 and the technique itself became more refined, its uses grew and we moved on to the era of genetic fingerprinting and databanking. For me, the ability to bring so many more of these offenders to justice is a product of these three areas coming together: long overdue legislative reform, which opened courtroom doors to victims of sexual violence; education about these crimes and how widespread their occurrence is; and the great forensic tool, DNA, that has solved cases even my best detectives could not have done.

BRC: You left the D.A.’s office in 2002. Have you ever regretted your decision to leave that office when you have heard of a particular case coming up for trial? Do you still keep in touch with the office and offer input on new or cold cases that are coming to trial?

LF: I left the DA’s office in 2002, which was the 30th anniversary of my service there. I have no regrets about the decision to step down then, but I do miss the work, and my colleagues, every single day. It was the right time for me to leave; so very much had been accomplished during my tenure, and I left a committed staff of great young lawyers to do the work that no one had wanted to do in the 1970s. I keep current on the legal training so that I am still a lawyer --- and a writer --- which is a wonderful combination for me. It allows me to consult and to weigh in on cases all over the country. Yes, I talk to my friends in the DA’s office all the time (several of whom are acknowledged in KILLER HEAT), many of whom are lovingly portrayed in my series. And when I watch the evening news and see a case that would be under the watch of my unit, I have to restrain myself from picking up the phone and asking for more facts. At heart, I’ll always be Manhattan’s sex crimes prosecutor. That’s probably why I created Coop.

BRC: Are there any cases that have stayed with you through the years and still haunt you?

LF: Yes, there are a lot of cases that have haunted me through the years. One of them involved the elusive East Side Rapist, who attacked more than 18 women over a period of years…then disappeared. He’s the first guy indicted as a John Doe DNA case --- we indicted his DNA profile, since we don’t know his name! This will allow us to prosecute him no matter when he’s caught, instead of losing the cases to the statute of limitations. I keep waiting to get that call. Also, there are several unsolved homicides that remain on my radar screen.

BRC: Do you base the crimes in the Alex Cooper novels on real-world cases that you investigated or became familiar with through your office?

LF: I’ve never written a novel that was based on an actual murder investigation I’ve handled. In KILLER HEAT, I draw heavily on a cold case rape --- solved 32 years after the occurrence --- as a subplot, mostly as a homage to the very courageous victim to whom the book is dedicated. But the main case is entirely fictional. That’s the thing I love, combining creative storytelling with factual information; it's entertaining but gently educating. 

BRC: Do you have a particular favorite of all of the novels you have written?

LF: I have two favorites among my novels. The new one is always my favorite, in this case KILLER HEAT, because I hope that it represents my best work. I think the writing is more polished as I go along, and it’s such a delight when the new one hits the shelves, so people can see what I’ve been living with for the last couple of years. And then, FINAL JEOPARDY, just because it was the first “baby” and will always be a sentimental favorite. They tie for first. 

Second place is THE BONE VAULT. In many ways, it was a breakout book for me, and the setting of the two museums resonates with so many readers, for whom it has been an introduction to the series. It’s always of great interest to me to hear from my fans --- everyone finds a different favorite among the 10, and I like to find out why, so that I can try to repeat some of those elements in future books.

BRC: We know that, like most authors, you do not read thrillers when you are writing. Since your writing for the next book is done, what are you reading now? 

LF: I just picked up Lisa Scottoline’s LADY KILLER, to be followed by an advance copy of Harlan Coben’s HOLD TIGHT and Loren Estleman’s GAS CITY. For a month or so, it will be all crime all the time.

BRC: What can you tell us about what you are working on now?

LF: Coop’s next caper is all about the world of rare books and maps. I’m a bibliophile, of course, and was given wonderfully rich access to the New York Public Library, which is probably my very favorite building in the city. No surprise --- it has a great history in its founding, its location (think Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST and you can still see the foundation of the old reservoir in the basement) and the incredible array of treasures that have been collected over the last century. Who knew it could be so deadly?

Thanks so much.