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The Sirens of Suspense




New York Times best-selling author Linda Fairstein was chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the district attorney’s office in Manhattan for more than two decades and is America’s foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence. Her Alexandra Cooper novels are international bestsellers and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She lives in Manhattan and on Martha’s Vineyard.

Find Linda on Twitter and Facebook.

Getting In: item1

I had always wanted to write a series of crime novels – not simply a single thriller, but the books in which readers become attached to the characters and wait for their return in caper after caper.  When I first created Alex Cooper and her NYPD detective pals – Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace – it was my dream that smart fans of suspense would relate to these fictional sleuths and follow them year after year.  My other goal was to place these characters in settings that would make the reading experience even richer.  I don’t like books that are simply car chases and shoot-outs.  I enjoy being transported to a place I don’t know well – by P.D. James or Michael Connelly, Robert Crais or Tana French – and coming away smarter for the hours of great suspense.

My protagonist is a prosecutor in Manhattan.  She runs the Sex Crimes Unit of the District Attorney’s Office – a job I held for more than twenty-five years.  And in that position, Coop gets to see parts of New York City that seem very refined to all of us from the outside, but often have a dark underbelly, once you scratch the surface to get in.  So I decided to take my readers into that world, using the great city itself as a character in each of the novels.  The trick has often been getting access, beyond the public’s reach, to many of these well-known places and institutions. 

Perhaps my hardest point of entry was the fabulous American Museum of Natural History, which would seem to be one of the most benign sites on the planet.  It’s the first place parents take their kids – whether living in or near the city or visiting as tourists – to see the amazing dinosaur skeletons, the Native American war canoe, and the dioramas filled with every mammal that walks the earth.  Then I read a story that said the museum had fifty million – fifty million – human bones on the shelves of its basement.  Why would these remains be collecting dust on a museum shelf, instead of being buried with relatives?  That story is the sad history of anthropology a century ago – when scientists travelled to Africa, to the Aleutian Islands, to the tribal lands of the American West, to literally dig up graves in the middle of the night so that they could study the bones of people of ‘other’ cultures.

Well, I was determined to get into the museum to learn these stories, and see what other treasures were buried there (scores of them, I assure you).  Administrators said “absolutely not” to my requests, telling me that if I even thought of killing someone at the Natural History museum, I’d never walk in the door again.  But great things happen in bookstores – and the owners of the old (and sorely missed) mystery bookshop – Black Orchid – introduced me to a customer who was a rare books librarian at the museum.  She offered to bring me in through the back door – she loved crime novels – and set up days of tours for me, four levels below the street where all the deepest secrets are shelved.  That serendipitous meeting resulted in all the research for THE BONE VAULT, which remains one of my favorite books in the series (the fifth novel) because of my struggle to get to the heart of the story, and also because of the stunning treasures within that great institution. (Note to authors:  be creative – there’s always a back door if you can’t get in the front one).

Gaining access to the forbidden behind-the-scene venues has become easier with each novel I’ve published.  There’s no question that the body of work helps me present to the next gatekeeper what my interest is, and how lovingly I display the interesting history of the places I’ve chosen to go – even while showing a sinister side of their background.

Curiosity – and great affection – got me behind the scenes in the New York Public Library, my single favorite building in Manhattan.  As many of you know, it’s not a lending library – there are no books to take away – but it remains one of the world’s great research institutions, and its collection of rare books and rare maps made it a natural destination for me, especially after a series of multi-million dollar map thefts grabbed headlines across the country.  To get in, I leaned on a dear friend who is a library trustee, who made the introduction to the #2 guy in charge, who happened to be a devotee of crime fiction (it helps that folks like us are really everywhere).  Who knew that book collecting could be so deadly?  The stories I learned became the tenth novel in the series, entitled LETHAL LEGACY.  (Note to authors:  if your friends are willing to help, they can be a fabulous resource to lead to people and places you don’t know).

My new book – NIGHT WATCH – was just published last month, but the world of fine dining – food, wine, fancy restaurants and murder – had been spinning a plot in my head for many years.   Thirty years ago, before I met and married my husband, I had a delicious romance with a French restaurateur, who lived in the south of France.  It was long before I started to write books, but I kept scores of journals about the exceptional dining experiences we enjoyed, and eventually gave Coop a boyfriend named Luc, who is an awful lot like my old friend.  Fast forward to last year and the current research I needed to do.  People often ask why I use the names of real restaurants in my novels.  Well, Alex needs to eat somewhere, so why not applaud the places I enjoy most?  Readers who know New York may recognize the names, while those in remote towns or foreign countries may not, but you can be sure the restaurant owners are happy.  I’ve had my share of drinks on the house for those mentions, which is also fun.  So it was especially easy to get access to many of the city’s finest eateries for this book – and the research was as delicious as it was fattening.  (Note to authors:  NIGHT WATCH is living proof that you should always do your own research – it’s so much more enjoyable that way, and I think it really reflects an important level of detail in the writing).  Bon appétit and suspenseful reading to you all.



WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GET IN—OR DOES YOUR CHARACTER NEED TO GO? Have you ever researched in an unusual place? Tell us, or ask Linda a question by commenting below or visit us and share your thoughts on our Facebook page and be entered to win one of two signed first editions of NIGHT WATCH as well as a NIGHT WATCH t-shirt!

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