Last week the Mystery Writers of America proclaimed Linda Fairstein the recipient of their 2019 Grand Master Award. Two days later, the MWA took it back after another mystery writer tweeted that Fairstein was “almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.”
“Almost singlehandedly responsible”? Apart from being a ridiculous exaggeration, that has nothing to do with Fairstein’s status as a writer of crime novels. The Grand Master award, according to the MWA, “represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality.”
In other words, it’s a recognition, by the leading organization of crime fiction writers and readers, of excellence in that genre. Not the Nobel Literature Prize which, in theory at least, demands political saintliness from its recipients.
Fairstein has published 20 murder mysteries whose hero is a female prosecutor named Alex Cooper; and three mysteries for children, featuring a girl sleuth named Devlin Quick. According to Fairstein’s publisher, her books are international bestsellers and have been translated into a dozen languages. In withdrawing the award “after profound reflection,” the MWA doesn’t dispute this, let alone claim that Fairstein’s fiction is insignificant or of low quality. Instead, it vaguely cites “the controversy in which she has been involved.”
That doesn’t look like profound reflection. Looks more like a school of guppies swimming determinedly in one direction and then, at the smallest disturbance, turning around and swimming with equal determination in the opposite direction.
Linda Fairstein was Chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Bureau in 1989 when a woman jogger was found raped and left for dead in Central Park. Nine other people were attacked in the same area of the park that evening by a group of about 30 teenage boys. The police caught two of the teenagers in the park, who named three others. They became the Central Park Five.
Fairstein participated in and approved of interrogation tactics that psychologists and defense attorneys have argued for years are unconstitutionally coercive and create the risk of a false confession. The suspects were taken to the crime scene (thereby feeding them information), falsely told that their fingerprints were found on the jogger’s underwear, and assured that they could go home if they confessed.
But neither the trial nor the appellate courts found the resulting confessions involuntary. Indeed, the police still use these tactics and courts unquestioningly uphold them. The only dissenter was the late Judge Vito Titone of the NY Court of Appeals who argued that 15-year old Yusuf Salaam’s confession should have been suppressed because Fairstein and Detective Taglioni deliberately deprived him of access to his family in order to obtain a confession.
After the Five were convicted and served years in prison, they were exonerated after the real perpetrator came forward with a confession that was not only voluntary but corroborated by DNA. Yet, Fairstein continues to insist that the full record “will confirm the original verdict.”
All that is very bad. And if Fairstein, who left the DA’s Office in 2002, were being appointed to the bench or running for District Attorney, we’d certainly be out there chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, coercive interrogation tactics have got to go.”
But when the MWA adjudged Fairstein’s fiction to be worthy of their award, it was absurd to withdraw it based on disapproval of the author herself. As absurd as blacklisting actors and directors because they might support Communism. Or radio stations’ refusing to play the recordings of great conductors like James Levine and Charles Dutoit because they’ve been accused of sexual misconduct. Or the National Gallery’s canceling a retrospective of the painter Chuck Close because he was allegedly fresh to his models.
As an appellate squawk, we’re naturally annoyed that most crime fiction glorifies prosecutors and propounds humbug forensics (“Dr. Wizard examined the bullet in the corpse and concluded that it could only have come from Big Dog’s gun”). But the remedy to annoying speech is more speech. There’s Rumpole of the Bailey. And of course, Appellate Squawk’s Murder Mystery.