New York: Scribner & London: Little Brown, 2006
Reviewed by Nicole Décuré
Murder at the Met
Death Dance is Linda Fairstein’s eighth novel in the Alexandra Cooper series. I have not read the previous or following books but judging from criticism though, it seems that this volume is fairly representative of her work.1
Linda Fairstein, like so many crime fiction writers, had an interesting career before turning into a full-time writer in 2002. After receiving a degree in English from Vassar College and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1972, she joined the office of the Manhattan District Attorney and became assistant DA. The sex crime unit was founded two years later and several legal changes were made that facilitated the prosecution of rape cases, at a time when the Women’s Liberation Movement was giving this issue a high priority. Linda Fairstein became chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the District Attorney’s office in Manhattan in 1976, a post she occupied for 25 years. She was prosecutor in several highly publicized cases. In 1993, she published a book on rape, Sexual Violence: Our War against Rape (New York, William Morrow & Co.), a landmark on the subject. She was/is the legal expert on crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is still a writer and a lecturer in defence of victims of sex crimes, and also an activist: she does pro bono work for women and children who are victims of violence and do not have access to the system.
In 1996, she published her first Alexandra Cooper novel. Alexandra Cooper, her main protagonist, is her alter ego. She is a tall (five foot ten) assistant DA, prosecutor for the Manhattan DA’s office, in charge of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for more than ten years. Linda Fairstein has thus been able to combine her love of writing and her career.
The novel starts with such a crime: two young Canadian tourists (female) accuse a hospital psychiatric resident (male) of rape committed while they were drugged (unbeknownst to them) and unconscious, the sort of rape called “drug-facilitated sexual assault”  in lawyerese. The beginning of the novel is brisk, poignant and exposes the various facets of sex crimes. The victims are human and sympathetic to the reader. The villain is Turkish and this reeks faintly of racism or, at least, xenophobia though Linda Fairstein declared in an interview that she made him Turkish to tackle the problem of jumping bail and escaping the country in such a situation.3 Then, another murder is committed, that of a famous Russian prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera House and this murder involves Alexandra Cooper’s attention and time. The way Alex meddles into a murder case that is not her concern or area of expertise rests on unconvincing reasons. Linda Fairstein explains:
This fails to convince as Alex is the head of a very specialized unit and cannot possibly be called to cases that are not related to it. Nine lives would not be enough.
The rape of the two Canadians seems fairly cut and dry. There is little room for doubt. Then Alexandra is faced with the sexist prejudices of a male judge who thinks a “doctor” cannot be suspected of some cockamamie rape allegation” , that a man and a doctor cannot behave in such a way . He is also rude, racist, sexist, offensive, a judge “who had never made the effort to understand the nature of sexual assault nor to address ‘lady lawyers’ appropriately” . As Linda Fairstein often portrays loved ones as well as enemies in her fiction, he is probably modelled on a DA she knew when she started out in her career, “who would not allow women to try murder cases. He thought women dealing with blood and guts in front of a jury was completely improper”.5
At times, the book seems to have been commissioned by the New York City Visitors Bureau. The smallest question triggers an avalanche of facts . We get the history, geography, architecture, gossip column of the Met. Alex is said to have studied ballet all her life [28-30] and Linda Fairstein is an absolute fan of the Met (postface). Every tiny detail is mentioned and we get chapter and verse on said detail. For example, there are descriptions of machinery to move the décor  and details of architecture connected with the Shriners, the Masons and Islam [312-15]. The story fictionalizes a real event that took place at the Met in 1980: a thirty-year old violinist, Helen Hagnes Mintiks, from the Berlin Ballet disappeared during a performance between the second and third act and was not found for three days. When her body was finally discovered in an air shaft, it appeared that she had been sexually assaulted, and defended herself fiercely but then was killed by an employee of the Met with a drinking problem. When she started writing the book, Linda Fairstein spent five enthralling days at the Met exploring every nook and cranny and seems bent on regurgitating all the knowledge acquired. What fascinated her most (and the general public, it seems) was the fact that a person could disappear among so many people (4,000 in the audience, 400 employees). This insistence on detail is not particular to Death Dance. Linda Fairstein has used it in Entombed with the Bronx Botanical Gardens and Edgar Allan Poe, in The Kills with King Farouk of Egypt, in The Bone Vault with the American Museum of Natural History and the Cloisters to name but a few.
We also get lectured about the importance of Alexandra’s circle of friends/support group as if that was something extra-ordinary , about the sexual dysfunction of a jogger , DNA databases [198-200] or a geographical gap on Martha's Vineyard [283-84]. Linda Fairstein explains this taste for minutiae:
She also feels that not only do her books have to entertain, they also have to “educate.”7 Educational material should not read like a guide book, nor like fiction for that matter. There is a contrived attempt at relating the two cases around the theme of sexual assault  but it does not hold long.
Although Alexandra Cooper occupies centre stage, there are two other main protagonists. Mercer Wallace is a 42-year old, six foot six, black first grade detective in the Special Victims Squad, married, with one child. Mike Chapman is a homicide cop, 37, a widower. The three of them have often worked as a team. “All too often, [their] professional worlds intersected and [they] shouldered the cases together, trying to restore moral order to a world in which lives ended so violently and abruptly” . Mike is not very nice, and sometimes offensive, which Alex excuses profusely. It might, unfortunately, be true to life but does not reflect well on the heroine who does not flinch under his verbal abuse.
This is an “I” narrative which establishes a closer relation with the reader and, at the beginning, it works. But it is no page-turner. 400 pages is long for a crime novel in which suspense and interest have to be kept up and this Linda Fairstein does not manage to do. Jenny Weight called her first novel, Final Jeopardy, “a limp bean stew.”8 This scathing definition still applies to Death Dance. After a promising beginning, the story gets bogged down in long descriptions, a plot that lacks interest and subplots that lead nowhere. I suppose the magic induced by an addiction to a series doesn’t work here as this is the eighth book and we are not attached to the main protagonist yet. The saga effect is null.
Crime fiction appeals for the fast pace of the action and/or the depth of its reflection on humankind and human societies. Lengthy, tedious, painstaking discussion of Met trivia slows down the pace and bores the reader (most readers?). Linda Fairstein hides the serious stuff under the glitter. The author has had the opportunity, in her long career, to observe the many facets of sexual violence against women. She does well on this subject. But does it sell books (which is the main purpose of most crime series), does it appeal to the readership? This may be an explanation for the fact that she branches out into a less sensitive, often-told plot: there are many examples of crime fiction novels based on the death of dancers, singers, actors and actresses, on stage or off stage.
1. Final Jeopardy (1996), Likely To Die (1997), Cold Hit (1999), The Deadhouse (2001), The Bone Vault (2003), The Kills (2004), Entombed (2005), Death Dance (2006), Bad Blood (2007), Killer Heat (2008). back
2. Meet the Writers. 2007. Barnes & Noble. 18 Nov. 2007. <http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writerdetails.asp?z=y&cid=1011283>. back
3. Bill Thompson’s Eye on Books, 18 Nov. 2007. <http://www.eyeonbooks.com/ibp.php?ISBN=0743254899>.back
4. Tangled Web UK, 3 Mar. 2003. 18 Nov. 2007. <http://www.twbooks.co.uk/crimescene/lindafairsteininterview.html>.back
5. BookEnds, The Bookplace magazine, 18 Nov. 2007.
6. Book Reporter. 6 Jan. 2004. Faithful Reader. 18 Nov. 2007. <http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-fairstein-linda.asp>.back
7. Tangled Web UK., Ibid. back
8. Reviews, Sisters in Crime Newsletter – Australia 15, Summer 1998, p. 18. back
9. Dorothy-L Archives. 23 Feb. 2007.