By Linda Fairstein, Dutton, 398 pages, $28.50
Linda Fairstein made a bold decision to situate her latest murder mystery, Death Angel, in Central Park. Fairstein was at the helm of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan D.A.'s office for 26 years, from 1976 to 2002, and, through her extremely successful tenure in that position—which included revolutionary changes to the way rape cases are prosecuted—and afterwards, has become known as one of the country's experts on crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence. Fairstein says she prosecuted more than 40 cases that occurred in Central Park. But her name is most often linked to two of them, the 1986 "Preppie Murder" case, and, more controversially, the 1989 case of the "Central Park" jogger, a then-28-year-old investment banker who was brutally assaulted, raped, and nearly murdered while jogging one evening in Central Park.
The jogger case, which, if memory serves, introduced the word "wilding" into the New York City lexicon, involved what eventually proved to be the wrongful convictions of five African-American teenagers (who came to be known as the "Central Park Five"). In 2002, after serving most if not all of their jail time, the Central Park Five had their convictions vacated, when Matias Reyes, who, while serving a long jail sentence for another brutal crime, confessed to the jogger's assault and rape and further confessed that he had acted alone. Reyes' confession proved consistent with the forensic evidence collected in the course of the investigation. In the aftermath, Fairstein, along with the lead prosecutor and the NYPD, was sharply criticized for the way the case was handled. One can't help but wonder whether Death Angel is, in some way, a gesture by Fairstein to her critics, showing them that she, who has consistently defended the handling of the jogger case, has no qualms about returning to the scene of that crime.
Not only does she place the book's key events in Central Park, Fairstein includes, as one plot line, the story of a rapist who haunts the park and uses a lead pipe to coerce his victims—the same weapon apparently used to severely damage the Central Park jogger's skull.
This rapist is one of several murder suspects in Death Angel, which opens with the grim discovery of a homeless teenage girl's bloated, bludgeoned body from the Lake, the ostensibly serene body of water that emanates from Bethesda Fountain near the park's 72nd Street transverse. The case is particularly difficult because the crime may have happened weeks, perhaps a month, before the corpse's discovery; no one was looking for this homeless, lonely victim. Her death was caused by blunt force trauma to the skull, and her identity is a total mystery.
Prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, the protagonist of every Fairstein crime novel (Death Angel is her 15th), is assigned to the case, as are detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, who often work with Cooper. The trio's investigation takes them from the deepest recesses of the park—its darkest forests, caves, and ravines—to the loftiest echelons of New York society, best exemplified by their tours through the sprawling apartments at The Dakota. With Cooper, Chapman, and Wallace, Fairstein has created and, over the years and books has honed, an entertaining combination of characters who work well together in the field and on the page. Through their conversations, Fairstein can breezily summarize a case's current status, and their banter brings levity to the horrifying facts and circumstances through which their work inevitably takes them.
Death Angel showcases Fairstein's encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of Central Park: its history, design, terrain, landmarks, and pathways. And as has become her hallmark, Fairstein livens Death Angel with alluring details of this city's best offerings. It is a joy to share with Fairstein's characters a rooftop cocktail at Patroon, a coveted multi-course feast at Rao's, or a starlit night atop the Arsenal's terrace.
But Fairstein shines an equally bright light on some of the more disturbing aspects of city life. In particular, Death Angel recounts some of the trauma that it is to be a homeless teenage girl here. As Fairstein describes it, many at-risk teens, driven from their own homes by domestic abuse or, perhaps by their family's refusal to accept their LGBT identities, are drawn to the city for the anonymity it offers, combined with the prospects of a community of similarly-situated teens. But these teens are especially vulnerable to victimization by sexual or violent predators, particularly female teens who find temporary refuge in the city's parks. Even worse, they often fear coming forward to report the crimes committed against them.
Fairstein shows the tenuous nature of homeless teens' lives by describing familiar locales from their perspective. She describes how teens recharge their cellphones by huddling inconspicuously around outlets at Apple stores. She tells us how they sleep at "Uncle ACE's house"—the A-C-E subway line, attractive for its length and relatively few stops. And, through one character, she explains why the American Museum of Natural History is particularly welcoming: "The bathrooms there are gigantic, but the stalls are really narrow. So once you lock the door of the stall, you can lean your head against the side of it and sleep till the end of the day when the janitor comes in to mop." By juxtaposing this distressing image with an image of the museum "filled during weekdays with schoolkids on field trips and on weekends with families and tourists enjoying the treasures housed there," Fairstein vividly portrays the stark and lonely place this city can be.
Death Angel will appeal equally to Fairstein's veteran and first-time readers. As a member of the former group, I was pleased to see that Cooper, who, at the time of this book's events has just turned 38, has matured, and Fairstein has given her more human dimensions. Cooper's personal life is in difficult straits, as a man she was dating has just moved back to France. Her professional life is marred by a recent unsuccessful verdict: a rapist she had prosecuted was found not guilty by reason of insanity (and is the one now victimizing women in Central Park). Nevertheless, Cooper's ability to keep her problems in perspective and treat them with humor reiterates her strength and augments her charm.
Towards the close of Death Angel, Cooper observes, "[T]he Park was treacherous…pulling you in with its beauty and betraying you with the dangers that lurked in its darkest recesses…. [It] was the most seductive place in New York City…. But it wasn't a place to enter alone in the dead of night, and I had seen far too much evidence of that fact in my decade as a prosecutor." Fairstein, a prosecutor for far more than a decade, can make these statements authoritatively. She has, with this novel, painted a multi-dimensional portrait of Central Park, with all of its beauty, complexity and danger on display.
Ina R. Bort is a partner at Kornstein Velsz Wexler & Pollard.