Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: HELL GATE by Linda Fairstein

HELL GATE by Linda Fairstein (Little, Brown, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In HELL GATE, the twelfth instalment in her Alex Cooper series, Fairstein’s heroine (who in many ways comes across as an aspirational version of the author) finds herself investigating a shipwreck that spills illegal immigrants into the frigid waters off Manhattan. At the same time a promising young congressman is caught up in a sex scandal that leads to murder. Alternatively flanked, lead, and pulled along by regular NYPD detective sidekicks Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, Cooper, an Assistant District Attorney, realises a sinister sex trafficking ring may be making power plays in New York City.

In a way, fans of crime drama Special Victims Unit, one of the most popular TV shows on our screens, already know Linda Fairstein – before she became a bestselling author she was the real-life New York ADA who helped set up the famed sex crimes unit – and this gave Fairstein instant credibility (as well as a nice marketing angle) when she turned from prosecuting crimes to writing about them.

Other than her background, Fairstein’s ‘trademark’ has always been her fondness for taking readers on journeys through well-researched, intriguing New York settings sprinkled with fascinating tidbits (largely unbeknownst even to locals), from past and present. But in HELL GATE it feels like Fairstein is relying on that to create and maintain interest, stringing together meandering plotlines to be able to show off that no-doubt-fascinating research, rather than simply writing an engrossing story with interesting characters and settings. It’s trivia, rather than vivid details bringing the book to life or creating any authentic narrative drive.

Unfortunately, readers may feel disengaged, and wishing Fairstein’s plots, characters and dialogue contained a larger measure of freshness or the richness she's capable of with her well-researched New York settings. In a crowded marketplace with plenty of terrific authors to chose from, there is nothing particularly standout about Cooper as a lead character, and her interactions with the others in the book feel 'thin', lacking depth.

In the end with crime and thriller fiction, storytelling quality trumps real-life credibility. And for me, HELL GATE is a lesser instalment in a solid but not spectacular series. 2 STARS

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