by Linda Fairstein
Published by Simon & Schuster
411 pages, 2001
Making Her Case
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein writes realistic murder mysteries about the investigations of her alter ego, prosecutor Alexandra "Alex" Cooper. Her 1996 debut novel, Final Jeopardy, was the basis for a recent ABC-TV movie. Her fourth and most recent book, The Deadhouse, seems like movie-of-the-week material as well. It is a perfect illustration of the sad and mediocre state into which too much contemporary crime fiction has fallen.
The Deadhouse opens with Cooper frustrated over the case of Lola Dakota, a fiery young Columbia University history professor with an abusive husband. Dakota demands court protection from her threatening husband, but -- as is often the case -- stubbornly refuses to let prosecutors file any charges against the creep. Soon Dakota is discovered dead in the elevator shaft of her upper West Side apartment near Columbia. Unfortunately, the scuzzy husband has the perfect alibi -- he was in the custody of New Jersey police at the time his wife was murdered. The investigation gets underway with Fairstein proceeding as if going down the checklist of a "how to write crime fiction" course. Kill a character early on. Produce an abundance of suspects. Add numerous uncooperative witnesses and an impatient boss. Give the sleuth a loyal, quirky, slightly bumbling sidekick. Add urban color. Fairstein diligently assembles all of these elements but neglects to flip the switch that should send power to her story.
The humorless, elegant Cooper and her investigator partner, Mike Chapman (he's older, politically incorrect, lacks a college degree and has a sense of humor, so scratch any possible romantic involvement), conduct their murder inquiry just as a prosecutor puts together a case: interviewing potential witnesses, one by one. Thus the book moves at a steady, lawyerly pace, generating briefcase loads of dialogue that is often as flat as a Manhattan sidewalk.
"Move it, Mohammad!" Chapman snarls at a turban-wearing cab driver, in what passes for Manhattan color and supposedly establishes him as a diamond-in-the-rough. Anyone who has thrilled to the lyricism of Ed McBain's novels or Jonathan Lethem's National Book Award-winning mystery, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), will be saddened by the stock Gotham moments Fairstein pastes into her pages.
The book's strength is its thought-provoking lineup of suspects, characters with plenty of motivation either for committing the murder or for helping someone else cover it up. Fairstein draws on her professional experience to create three-dimensional witnesses who rarely tell the whole truth and who usually tell anything but the truth. And she provides a victim with plenty of secrets to be revealed posthumously. When not whining to prosecutors in New York and New Jersey about her husband, Dakota had been one of a group of researchers involved in a multidisciplinary project on Roosevelt Island. Located between Manhattan and Queens, that island once housed an insane asylum, a prison and a smallpox hospital. One biology researcher now suspects that some deadly vestige of the smallpox virus may still exist there, in the hospital's ruins. Meanwhile, some students involved in the project believe a wealthy prisoner buried his ill-gotten gains on the grounds. Historian Dakota, who'd dubbed the ruins "the deadhouse," was seeking the stories of people who'd spent time in those institutions -- or had she really been after the treasure?
Every aspect of Dakota's life and career seems suspicious. Her office bulletin board holds a picture of a student who had vanished mysteriously from campus months earlier. She had been friendly with a colleague who is under investigation for tampering with grant money. Her messy apartment yields evidence of an affair, and the man has left behind not only clothing, but DNA evidence. Finally, no one can discount the possibility that all of these clues are merely red herrings and Dakota was killed by a professional hit man hired by her vindictive husband. This book is at its best as Cooper and Chapman confront unwilling suspects and uncooperative university officials in exchanges that sound like courtroom crossfire.
The author's attempt to weave a jet-set romantic theme into her book is the straw that breaks an otherwise fairly serviceable plot. Poor Alex! While Janet Evanovich lets her wild-and-crazy sleuth, Stephanie Plum, mix lust with law enforcement and Sue Grafton grants the edgy Kinsey Millhone the occasional passionate fling with the right tough guy, Fairstein gives the fastidious Cooper a semi-steady relationship with Jake Tyler. He's a pretty-boy network newscaster who gets chauffeured around by a car service and periodically wings off to Washington, D.C. for dinner parties. The book's romantic interludes read like a blue-collar housewife's fantasy of the love lives of the rich and famous:
We settled into a quiet corner banquette, and the dark, handsome decor of the room suited my mood. I was brooding about the week's events and the gloom that had enveloped this season that I so loved. Jake devoured his steak while I swiped a few of his perfect pommes frites to go along with my soup and salad, and we sipped a wonderful Burgundy.
Of a holiday getaway at her vacation home on tony Martha's Vineyard, Cooper gushes, "My Fitzgerald novel was constantly interrupted by Jake's discovery of something in his new Keats that he wanted to read aloud to me."
Some chapters later, as Cooper is being pursued across the deadhouse compound by a homicidal madman, I half-expected her to whip out a pager and demand that Jake's car service come pick her up immediately -- and do bring along a bottle of that marvelous Burgundy.
The Deadhouse will have modest appeal for readers who enjoy legal thrillers, crime fiction with academic settings or Town & Country magazine. But I'd caution them not to raise their sights too high. Prosecutor Fairstein builds a fine case, but not much of a detective story. | October 2001
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.