New York City's Grand Central Station is the setting for author Linda Fairstein's new thriller, Terminal City. The latest installment in the best-selling Alex Cooper series, Terminal City features Assistant DA Cooper tracking down a serial killer who carves cryptic symbols on his female victims. The chase leads Cooper to miles of Grand Central's hidden tunnels reaching several stories under street level, terrifying catwalks hanging hundreds of feet over the terminal floor and a little-known escape route reserved for the President of the United States when he's in town.
Fairstein was the chief of the sex crimes unit of the district attorney's office in Manhattan for more than 20 years. She tells us her experiences with real life crime and crime on the page are very different. "It wasn't always possible to 'do justice' in the courtroom," she says. "As a novelist, I certainly enjoy being able to control the fate of the criminals I created. It's great fun to create a bad guy...and see him meet an appropriate fate. My perps don't get away with much."
Fairstein joined the Manhattan District Attorney's Office right after she finished law school in 1972. It was a time, she recalls, when women were not allowed to handle violent crime cases in the courtroom.
"I was terrifically naïve, and expected that my career would be spent in the law library, working on the appeals of criminal cases. That all changed radically when the old-fashioned DA who had hired me, Frank Hogan, died ... and the new man in charge embraced diversity of all kinds. Suddenly I was dealing with victims, thrust directly into a much darker world."
It was also a time when the American legal system was changing its attitudes and practices about sexual assault. Fairstein witnessed and participated in the changing of laws during her tenure at the DA's Office. She also helped to create the country's pioneering special victims unit.
"People often think that sounds like depressing work, but in fact it was extremely uplifting," Fairstein tells us. "For the first time in decades, we were able to restore the dignity of rape survivors and try to do justice - quite a thrill for an idealistic young lawyer. Then, ten years later, I was one of the first prosecutors in the country asked to consider using a new scientific technique called DNA technology, which has revolutionized the system.
"I stayed in that job for 30 years, because the good things we could do were so very satisfying. When I started to write fiction, I was driven to crime novels - not just because I love to read them - but because I wanted to enlighten readers about the great work accomplished in this once-dark field."
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Writing about horrific crimes with fictional characters is easier than prosecuting them in court with real life victims and criminals. "As a writer, I think my job is far easier than my work as a district attorney. It's fiction, and even when I go to an ugly place, I know it's only fiction. The real life job created far more stress and anxiety. People's lives were in our hands every day of the week."
Fairstein says she first thought about writing as a career before ending up in law. "I went to a great women's college to major in English lit, slowly realizing - as my father used to point out - that I had 'nothing to write about.' My other great interest was in public service, which is the direction that took me to law school. The law, like so many other careers in that day, was not welcoming to women. I was fortunate to get a job! I never imagined 'making a difference', but I fell in love with the work I was doing and was privileged to be doing it at such a critical point in the history of sexual assault legislative reform."
After three decades in the DA's Office, Fairstein had plenty to write about. While her courtroom days as a prosecuting attorney are over, Fairstein still consults on criminal cases while writing giving her, she says, the best of both worlds. "I pinch myself every day. I love working on criminal cases, training young prosecutors and police officers and will always do that. And the joy of writing books, telling stories, and being in the world of books and authors and readers, well, it makes every day interesting and challenging, and I look forward to more."
Linda Fairstein reads from and signs Terminal City at 6:30 p.m. on June 17 at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-524-8597 or visit murderbooks.com. Free.