Tuesday, April 10, 2018


LETHAL LEGACY by Linda Fairstein (Little, Brown & Company, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When Assistant District Attorney Alex Cooper is summoned to Tina Barr’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she finds a neighbor convinced that the young woman was assaulted. But the terrified victim, a conservator of rare books and maps, refuses to cooperate with investigators. Then another woman is found murdered in that same apartment with an extremely valuable book, believed to have been stolen. As Alex pursues the murderer, she is drawn into the strange and privileged world of the Hunt family, major benefactors of the New York Public Library and passionate rare book collectors.

Eventually Alex connects their internal family rivalries to a priceless edition of Alice in Wonderland, which also contains the world’s oldest map. Would one of the well-bred Hunts be willing to kill for the treasures? The search for the answer takes Alex and her team on a breathtaking chase from Manhattan’s grandest apartments to the secret tunnels and chambers of the New York Public Library, and finally to a nineteenth-century underground vault. There, in the pitch-black darkness, Alex comes face-to-face with the killer who values money more than life.

I'm a big fan of the SVU edition of the famed Law & Order television drama franchise, which is inspired by the real-life sex crimes unit of the NYPD that Fairstein was heavily involved with in her former role as a Manhattan prosecutor of crimes against women and children. I'm also a fan of legal thrillers, and the New York setting, so you'd think that Fairstein's series starring ADA Alex Cooper would tick boxes for me across the board. In subject matter, yes, in execution, sadly not so much.

Fairstein undoubtedly brings a great deal of authenticity and expertise to her novel writing; she's lived such cases in a far deeper way than most of her contemporaries, getting an inside view over and over for decades. She's seen beyond the headlines to the nitty gritty and grey areas of the job. But for whatever reason, that doesn't quite translate to being a home run on page, for me at least. Which is a real shame. It's like all the great ingredients are there, right on hand, but the baking isn't quite right.

Reading LETHAL LEGACY, the 11th of 19 books in Fairstein's long-running series starring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper and her police colleagues Mercer and Chapman, I was reminded of what I both like and am frustrated by with Fairstein's writing.

Despite her real-life background in the prosecution of sex crimes, Fairstein's greatest authorial talent seems to lie in the way she digs out and brings lesser-known aspects of New York to vivid life on the page, rather than her crime plotlines. In LETHAL LEGACY readers are taken into the behind-the-scenes world of the New York Public Library and rare book collectors. This provides some nice texture and interest to the tale, though at times Fairstein seems to revel too much in her research.

Unfortunately, the crime plotlines and characterisation feel weak in comparison. Fairstein's prose is fairly straightforward, without a distinctive style or strong narrative voice. She sets the hook well at the beginning, cajoling us to keep turning the pages to find out why the woman with the rare book was murdered in someone else's apartment, and wondering what is going on.

But things peter out as the pages turn. I think the biggest issue for me is that as much as I should find Cooper, Mercer, and Chapman engaging on the surface, and as much as I've really loved similar characters on television or from other authors, their interplay and Cooper's personality, in particular, just gets a bit tiresome. The characterisation feels 'thin' overall, lacking somewhat. And this effects my overall enjoyment of the tale. I'm curious to find out what happens, but I'm not really deeply engaged by the world or the characters. It's more of a mild intellectual curiosity, bolstered at times by the look into lesser-known aspects of New York and the books world, but never really grabbing me.

I would note that a lot of people really like Linda Fairstein's novels. She is a very popular and successful author, and there are things in her books I enjoy myself. But for me, for whatever reasons, it just doesn't quite 'click'. LETHAL LEGACY felt like a good opportunity, somewhat unfulfilled.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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