Best-selling author and Chilmark resident Linda Fairstein has said that one of her greatest pleasures is the moment she holds in her hand a copy of her latest book. Fans will feel the same way on July 10 when Dutton publishes Night Watch, the latest of Ms. Fairstein’s engrossing crime fiction novels.
Night Watch is the 14th book in Ms. Fairstein’s series about Alexandra Cooper. The crimes prosecuted by Ms. Cooper — a New York City assistant district attorney for the sex crimes unit — draw on Ms. Fairstein’s own 26-year history working in that same capacity.
Loyal followers of Alex Cooper have come to expect and anticipate Ms. Fairstein’s annual additions to the long-running series. With Night Watch, both devotees and new readers alike will delight at the return of Alex Cooper and her professional partners and close friends Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace. In this installment, Alex learns the hard way that the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of international restaurateurs isn’t full of just wine and candlelight.
Alex’s attempt at a vacation is marred by a crime that brings professional, and then personal intrigue. Only 48 hours after she arrives in southern France to visit Luc Rouget — her boyfriend and a famed restaurateur — and celebrate her 38th birthday, the vacation is cut short. For the first time in centuries, a murder takes place in Luc’s home village of Mougins.
Luc is named a suspect; the murdered woman was fired from his employment for stealing, and found in the victim’s clothing is a matchbox created to promote Luc’s new business venture, the re-opening of famed New York restaurant Lutece. Alex wants to help with the investigation but is summoned back to New York to handle a high profile and highly volatile case. Mohammed Gil-Darsin, the wealthy and distinguished leader of the World Economic Bureau, has been arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. Behind closed doors, Alex grapples with an unreliable victim whose testimony is marred with inconsistencies. Alex’s focus is split as another body carrying one of Luc’s matchbox is found — this time in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. As her personal and professional lives are intertwined by the two cases, Alex stands outwardly strong. But the outcome of both has dramatic consequences for her.
If the central plotline sounds familiar, it should. Ms. Fairstein never relies on just her own prosecutorial experience; she keeps au courant with the headlines and brings her insider’s view to how Alex would handle a similar case. For her jumping-off point, Ms. Fairstein utilized the arrest of International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was arrested on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape against hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo. The Strauss-Kahn case came to light on May 14, 2011, only 13 months ago, and exploded with issues concerning race, power, position, victims’ rights and reputation.
The case would have fallen under Ms. Fairstein’s jurisdiction as a prosecutor. In her fictional version, she gives the reader a sensitive, fully-rendered view of what’s required to handle such a volatile case. Ms. Fairstein doesn’t shy away from depicting the clashing attitudes held by the French and Americans towards rape and sexual mores — attitudes that raised provocative questions beyond “he said/she said.” While you may have thought you knew what was going on from the headlines, Ms. Fairstein’s fictional work explores in-depth how difficult and nuanced an investigation can be.
Night Watch takes place at a dizzying pace. The book covers only one week, but the action spans two continents and leaves at least four dead bodies. That pace might mirror how quickly the reader will speed through Alex Cooper’s latest adventure; the book is completely engrossing and hard to put down. The draw is not just to the questions of “who dunnit,” nor is it just about Ms. Fairstein’s luscious descriptions of a French village, Connecticut countryside, or her ripe description of the Gowanus Canal’s stink. Gratification is found in the rich, deeply detailed characters created by Ms. Fairstein. Every one of the characters presented in the book, whether central or peripheral, springs vividly to life.
The “all for one, one for all” spirit shown by Alex, Mercer and Mike is strong, too, as they unite as an investigatory team. But Ms. Fairstein develops the personal lives of these characters as well. The richness of her writing helps bond the reader to them. The language is dynamic and lively, full of the street-smart phrases of NYPD detectives, the swagger of lawyers and the sympathetic cheers of female friends. Newcomers needn’t worry about landing amidst a long-running series as they’ll find themselves instantly at ease and familiar with the characters. Ms. Fairstein drops in background information with gracefulness and it never seems like exposition.
Ms. Fairstein’s focus in Night Watch is the restaurant world, from back office theft to the payoffs required for garbage and linen service. She has been taking notes on the restaurant industry for decades, long before the Food Network craze. In Night Watch, she draws on details gleaned through her friendship with Andre Surmain (founder of the original Lutece) and others. Readers will be thrilled to learn secrets yielded by the research: the hidden rooms built during Prohibition beneath Manhattan’s famed 21 Club, the story of a members-only Greenwich Village restaurant that doubles as a rifle club, the intricacies of restaurant management as revealed by the owners of the first-class midtown steakhouse Patroon and the huge effort required to open a restaurant that requires restaurateurs to seek private investors from outside the food world. Ms. Fairstein also draws on the best possible research of all, having enjoyed meals at all of the landmark restaurants frequented by Alex, Mercer and Mike. You can assume the delicious meals contributed to the author’s descriptive powers.
Vineyard readers of the series know to look for the inclusion of Island references. As a Chilmark homeowner, Alex’s world includes her Island favorites such as Larsen’s and the Galley. Ms. Fairstein laughs when describing the “very funny, pointed fan mail” she gets when an Alex Cooper book doesn’t include a Vineyard scene. To this end, the fast pace and vast geography of Night Watch don’t allow for the inclusion of a Vineyard-based scene, but the Island is often on Alex’s mind, particularly when she wants to regroup with friends.
When Ms. Fairstein began writing the Alex Cooper series, she estimated she had enough to fill 10 books. Night Watch is the 14th, and thankfully the author shows no sign of slowing down.
Linda Fairstein will read from Night Watch on Saturday, July 28, beginning at 4 p.m. at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven.