Lawful Intent: Linda Fairstein on “Blood Oath” & 20 Years of Alex Cooper
By John B. Valeri
Linda Fairstein has been thrilling readers for more than two decades with her suspense novels featuring New York Assistant District Attorney Alexandra “Alex” Cooper, who prosecutes sex crimes much like the ones depicted on “Law & Order: SVU.” Her books are imbued with authenticity, which can be attributed to the author’s own celebrated tenure running Manhattan’s Sex Crimes Unit from 1976 to 2002; they also uncover the hidden histories of some of the city’s most prominent landmarks and locales, ensuring that readers are educated as they’re entertained.
Alex and her comrades, NYPD detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, first appeared in “Final Jeopardy” (1996), and have recurred in eighteen subsequent international and New York Times bestselling books that have been translated into more than a dozen languages. This body of work has also earned Fairstein—who is the recipient of numerous honors for her legal work and philanthropic efforts—accolades including the Nero Wolfe Award for Excellence in Crime Writing in 2008 and the Silver Bullet Award from the International Thriller Writers in 2010.
This March marks yet another milestone achievement: the publication of the series’ twentieth entry, “Blood Oath”—a story that finds Alex Cooper exploring past and present events as she mines the depths of Manhattan’s secretive Rockefeller University. Publishers Weekly called the book a “solid entry,” noting: “Fairstein’s vast experience of working as a pioneer in sex crimes investigations enables her to make Alex’s efforts both plausible and fascinating.”
Ms. Fairstein recently took time to reflect on Alex Cooper’s evolution, and her own …
John B. Valeri (J.B.V.): “Blood Oath” is your 20th Alex Cooper novel. Congratulations! Upon reflection, how has Alex changed over the years, how has she stayed the same, and in what ways do you expect her to continue to evolve in moving forward?
Linda Fairstein (L.F.): Thank you for the congratulations, John! I pinch myself because there are times I can’t believe that “Blood Oath” is the 20th novel in my Alex Cooper series. I can remember exactly where I was – in the back seat of a taxi cab on Park Avenue in New York City – when my agent called to tell me that there was a publishers bidding war for the unfinished manuscript of the first book, “Final Jeopardy.” She said that one of the bidders asked whether I thought I could do two books. “Two?” I said, because of my fierce love of series crime fiction. “I’d like to do ten.” And now, this is number 20. So it’s really a dream come true.
As in all series, the protagonist and continuing characters really need to evolve over the years – that’s important to me, as a writer, and of course good readers demand it. Alex hasn’t gotten much older – I have chosen not to age her in ‘real time’ – but she has matured emotionally and professionally. That’s one change, evidenced in recent books as she was kidnapped and had to recover from that trauma, just as her victims have had to do. What is the same about Alex is her loyalty to friends and colleagues, her passion for doing justice, and her strong sense of integrity – those are all hallmark traits. Readers will see her continue to evolve as the nature of criminal conduct changes (for example, international terrorism, computer-driven crimes, sex crimes in the aftermath of the Me, Too movement), and will also see how her relationship with Mike Chapman contributes to her growth.
J.B.V.: This book finds Alex back on the job after a leave of absence, and after herself having fallen under suspicion for a game-changing crime. In what ways have those experiences informed her psyche – and how might her personal and professional ambitions change as a result?
L.F.: After the kidnapping in “Devil’s Bridge,” it was unrealistic to think that Coop could get right back into the intensity of her work as a prosecutor. So in the novels that followed, she was trying to recover – stubborn at first, in thinking she didn’t need professional help. One of the things I love about fans is that they tell you what they like … and what they don’t like. I got a lot of mail complaining about the fact that Alex Cooper was whining too much after her victimization – which amused me. So in “Blood Oath,” the story opens with Coop coming into the courtroom to face down a judge who was bullying one of her assistant district attorneys. I think the experiences she endured as a victim and as a suspect, and the loss of her long-time boss, ended up giving her renewed determination to stay strong and fight to get back on her feet. I’m hoping this will restore the faith that Coop’s fans place in her.
J.B.V.: Alex is tasked with investigating a case in which the victim reports past sexual abuse by a prominent official. In what ways is this premise illustrative of the energies and emotions of the #MeToo movement – and how does the story allow you to explore the complexities of advocacy when confronted with a controversial case (and other factors such as delayed reporting, public scrutiny, media interference, etc.)?
L.F.: The case at the heart of “Blood Oath” is complex and truly representative of the issues every prosecutor confronts when faced with a very sensitive and potentially high-profile investigation. I drew heavily from my own experience – thirty years as a prosecutor, twenty-six of which were spent leading the country’s pioneering Special Victims Unit – to create the conflicts Coop faces as she takes her witness through the system. The victim is a young woman with a difficult personal past, in that her mother – a single mother – died when Lucy was just a kid … and then she witnessed the homicides of two friends. All that before she was groomed by a sexual predator. Is she telling the truth? Is her story supported by any evidence? Is it compelling enough to take on a prominent public figure? And is it the right thing to do? Senior prosecutors have dealt with every one of these issues at one time or another, in the heat of the media glare, and I try to put that all into story to heighten the tension between Coop and the defendant … whom she actually knows. I’m not sure that I have ever worked so many real elements of a case into the plot of one of my novels – which was both fun to do and a real challenge as well.
J.B.V.: As always, you explore a New York institution: here, Rockefeller University. What was your point of entry for this particular place, and what do you hope that readers might glean after having read the book?
L.F.: My self-branding has become the inclusion of a New York City landmark in each of the novels – something that I love learning about as well as introducing the reader to. At dinner one night two years ago, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to a brilliant scientist who works at Rockefeller University. Like most New Yorkers, I have walked and driven past the elegant wrought-iron gates of Rock U on Manhattan’s Upper East Side thousands of times, without ever knowing exactly what went on inside. My dinner partner invited me in to give the scientists a lecture about forensic uses of DNA, and in exchange, I asked for a tour of the ‘campus.’ The Rockefeller Institute was founded in 1901 by John D. Rockefeller, as a research facility to study cures for infectious diseases. In 1910, a 30-bed hospital was built on the grounds. Today, if someone were to get off a plane and be diagnosed with a rare infection like Ebola, they’d be sent straight to Rockefeller. By the way, there are no undergrads there – it’s just a graduate facility for PHD students, and they do ground-breaking work there to prevent disease. It’s just opening the readers’ eyes to this unusual kind of facility – 25 Nobel Prize laureates have been from Rock U – and to its historical significance. And oh, did I mention mysterious underground tunnels and things like that? All true.
J.B.V.: Past and present events come together as the narrative unfolds. What is your plotting process like to account for this? Also, more generally, what do you believe are the keys to building/maintaining suspense – and how do you weigh organic developments vs. pre-planning?
L.F.: Yes, in “Blood Oath,” in large part because the crime reported by the victim occurred a decade earlier, the past and present collide in the storytelling. That’s one of the reasons the case is such a problem for police and prosecutors investigating the facts and applying the law – the age of the complaint. We’ve all seen a lot of that in the news lately, haven’t we? I do a lot of plotting in advance of writing – readers of crime novels are pretty sophisticated about expecting stories that make sense by the time you get to the resolution of the mystery. But I am very comfortable now, in ways that I was not when I started to write books, that as I get into the storytelling, ‘things’ change – things happen as characters interact and so they often go in different directions than in the original plotting. I love the flexibility of that in writing books – it keeps the process lively and vibrant for me, as well (I hope) as for the reader.
J.B.V.: Leave is with a teaser: What comes next—both for Alex and for you?
L.F.: I’m a very superstitious person! I can’t bring myself to reveal where Coop goes next, but it will obviously be in a setting she has never before explored. And #21 is still untitled. I love doing book tours, and I have a terrifically vigorous one (thank you to booksellers, librarians, and loyal readers!) planned for “Blood Oath.” By then, I’ll be ready to reveal something more about Coop’s next caper.