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Crime Pays: Linda Fairstein

Linda Fairstein '69

Linda Fairstein chose Vassar because of its excellent English department (she graduated in 1969, in the last all women’s class), but aware that supporting herself as a writer wouldn’t be easy, she went on to get a law degree at the University of Virginia.

Public service was my second interest,” Fairstein says. It was also in her genes. Her father was a community doctor, and her mother did extensive volunteer work. “I never abandoned the dream of writing, and it’s really quite serendipitous that my career in the law is what gave me the subject of my writing.” Fairstein is referring to her bestselling Alexandra Cooper series, which debuted with Final Jeopardy in 1996. Her 14th book in the series featuring the New York assistant district attorney in charge of prosecuting sex crimes, Night Watch, comes out in July from Dutton.

Fairstein herself went directly to the New York district attorney’s office when she graduated from law school in 1972. There were 200 lawyers—only seven were women. Although she had been one of 11 women at UVA Law School among 340 men, Fairstein admits to being naïve; when she started at the DA’s office, women were not even trying homicide cases.

Extremely modest for a woman so successful and accomplished, Fairstein, who has handled several high-profile cases in her career, including the Robert Chambers/Jennifer Levin case, known as the Preppy Murder, and the Central Park Jogger case, insists that her quick rise as a prosecutor—she was made head of the sex crimes prosecution unit in 1976, which she ran for 26 years—happened because there just weren’t many females in the office. She was reluctant at first, she says, because of the depressing nature of the cases and a resistance to being limited to one field when women were beginning to handle homicides. But she agreed to an 18-month trial period and fell in love with the work. “It was serendipity again, because of the feminist movement and the agitation of the ’60s, the laws began to change, we could begin to get women in the courtroom, we could actually get female victims a good result. It was a very special time, the mid-’70s. I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. I loved being part of what was happening and getting up in the morning having no idea who would walk through my door.”

More change came in 1986, with the introduction of DNA, and Fairstein also witnessed firsthand the difference in people’s attitudes. “When I started doing this work, violent crimes against women was something people didn’t talk about—not in mainstream media or at dinner parties. Now, there is no stigma. People who have been victimized are not seen as participating in the crime, and to me that is so wonderful.” In the late ’80s Fairstein was approached about writing a book about sex crimes. The publisher wanted her to use a ghostwriter, but she saw an opportunity to pursue her original dream. Her nonfiction book, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape (1993), was named a New York Times Notable Book. She wrote it while working full-time, with permission from her boss and the conflict board. “It wasn’t bestselling, but it was a huge thing for me.”

Having successfully written her first nonfiction book, Fairstein, encouraged by an agent friend of her husband’s, decided to finally try fiction. She wrote the first pages of Final Jeopardy in the summer of 1994, and hasn’t stopped writing since. The book introduced Alex Cooper, with a story inspired by a crime case Fairstein had worked on. Night Watch is also inspired by real-life events, but with Fairstein’s own ending. It centers around a maid at a New York City hotel who claims a distinguished world leader has raped her. Other Alex Cooper novels echo actual Fairstein cases, but she says that many are pure fiction, fabricated from her imagination and hundreds of notebooks filled with dialogue collected over the years. Her experience as a lawyer gives her stories and characters an authentic, “insider” feel. The detectives in her novels who resurface time after time “are composites of the best and the brightest that I worked with in real life.”

Fairstein wanted to write a series because “that’s what I like to read. When my Final Jeopardy publisher [Scribner] asked me if I thought I could write two, I said I thought I could write 10.” Fair-stein says Alex’s professional life is “entirely based on me and my experiences, except for the parts where she’s running around in the middle of the night when she should be in bed!” Fairstein claims the motivation for creating a fictional character that mirrored her in the working world was to show the uplifting side of what she did. “I always felt like I was helping people. I don’t believe there’s closure in a murder case. Someone can be convicted, but the victim is still dead. But you help the family through the tragedy and in the best situation, you restore someone’s dignity. There were far more good days [at the DA’s office] than bad.” She does, however, take some liberties with her heroine: “She isn’t aging in real time because I want to keep her active and open.” And there are more Alex Cooper novels to come, Fairstein says, as well as maybe a stand-alone novel and also a story told from the point of view of Mike Chapman, a homicide detective from the series.

New York City always plays an important role in her novels (“How could you live in Manhattan and not use the real stuff?”) and her fascination with the city’s landmarks has led her to settings on Roosevelt Island (The Deadhouse, 2001), the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History (The Bone Vault, 2003), Lincoln Center (Death Dance, 2006), and the New York Public Library (Lethal Legacy, 2009), to name a few. Night Watch features (besides a crime) Alex’s romance with recurring character Luc Rouget, a restaurateur, and it takes readers into the exciting world of New York City restaurants. The character of Rouget, Fairstein reveals, is based on a man important in her personal life, Andre Surmain, whose restaurant Le Relais, in the French village of Mougins, appears in the book. Surmain is the creator of the famed restaurant Lutèce, which also plays a role in the novel. This blend of fact and fiction (other real-life favorite restaurants show up in Night Watch, like Patroon, owned by Fairstein’s friend Ken Aretsky,) adds to the well-researched restaurant backdrop of the story.

Although Fairstein stopped working at the DA’s office in 2002, she is still very active with pro bono law work and is on the board of several advocacy groups like Safe Horizon. Just as she plans to keep writing, she also “can’t imagine ever losing the law—it’s so personal. I think a good lawyer has to be a good writer,” she concludes. “You’re telling a story to the jury, your opening and closing speeches are so important.” Just like in a good crime novel.

–Ruby Cutolo

Photos © Vassar College/Randi Baird

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2012 issue of Publisher’s Weekly. Reprinted with permission.