At a time when a person’s history magically disappears in a flash, like former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and Southern District of New York United States Attorney Preet Bharara, for whom being fired by Trump was all that was needed to morph them into social justice heroes despite their entire careers being dedicated to mass incarceration, the naming of former chief of Sex Crimes of the New York County District Attorney’s office as the winner of the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America was surprising, to say the least.
Mystery Writers of America announced the recipients of its 2019 Grand Master Award on Tuesday, but the announcement has been met with more outrage than celebration.
The Grand Master Award, presented at the annual Edgar Awards banquet in New York, is one of the most prestigious distinctions in the mystery genre, an honor held by the likes of Stephen King, Walter Mosley and Agatha Christie. Next year, the award will go to Martin Cruz Smith and Linda Fairstein. I’d heard of Smith, but not Fairstein. And really, I should have known her name. Not for her internationally bestselling Alexandra Cooper series, but because in her former life working for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five. She shouldn’t be the toast of a black-tie literary gala — she should be notorious.
When she was sex crimes chief, Fairstein was one tough prosecutor. That alone, of course, doesn’t make her a bad person. That was the job, and she was extremely good at it. But what happened with the Central Park Five was a defining moment, coercing false confessions from five young black men to one of the most heinous and high profile rapes in the nation was not part of the job. It was an abusive disgrace.
At the time, the City, if not the country, demanded that this horrible rape be solved and the perpetrator(s) brought to justice. They needed to close this case, and they did. Just with the wrong defendants, not that one would have known since they confessed. So Fairstein was a hero for getting them to confess, until DNA proved the confessions false.
Fairstein subsequently became a successful and popular author.
Fairstein has made a name for herself writing legal thrillers about a sex crimes prosecutor who serves justice and saves the day. She’s made enormous profits with these stories, and has been astoundingly successful in shaping her own narrative and retaining the respect of her community.
Having never read any of her books, I have no opinion as to their worth as “legal thrillers,” but it’s hardly unusual for a writer to write about what they know, like a sex crimes prosecutor “who serves justice.” Don’t they all?
Here’s what Mystery Writers of America had to say about Fairstein’s legal career, in this cheery news release on Tuesday morning: “Linda Fairstein became a sex-crimes prosecutor during a time when sex crimes were almost impossible to prosecute. In her 30-year tenure at the Manhattan DA’s Office, she was a pioneer in the war against rape, fighting for historic changes to the criminal justice system and for justice on behalf of victims of the most heinous crimes.”
It didn’t take long after the announcement for the backlash against giving Fairstein the Grand Master prize, because the MWA board apparently didn’t bother to google her first, to take its toll.
After profound reflection, the Board has decided that MWA cannot move forward with an award that lacks the support of such a large percentage of our members. Therefore, the Board of Directors has decided to withdraw the Linda Fairstein Grand Master award. We realize that this action will be unsatisfactory to many. We apologize for any pain and disappointment this situation has caused.
Putting aside the obliviousness of the MWA board in failing to have a clue about Fairstein before awarding her the prize, the question remains whether her horrendous conduct as sex crimes chief in the Central Park Five should preclude the award as a mystery writer. On the one hand, her books speak for themselves. People buy them, so apparently they like them, and perhaps she’s a great, if self-aggrandizing, writer of fiction. Can’t someone who did something heinous in a prior career be a great writer?
Of course they can. She did something terribly wrong in the Central Park Five case, but she’s not just defined by the worst thing she ever did. No doubt she also did good things as a prosecutor, and they define her as well. But more to the point, this was about writing books, not an award for being the person who coerced false confessions. And she obviously wrote successful books, so that ought to count for something.
But this wasn’t just an award for book of the year, but the Grand Master Award.
The Grand Master Award is the highest honor bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America. It recognizes lifetime achievement and consistent quality.
Does this mean just the books, not the person? While Linda Fairstein shouldn’t be precluded from winning a book award because of what she did in the Central Park Five case, it doesn’t mean that she is a paradigm of mystery writing virtue either. As expressed by Edgar Award winner Attica Locke:
Ms. Fairstein “never apologized or recanted her insistence” on the boys’ guilt despite their subsequent exonerations. “Just because she has a flourishing publishing career does not mean we should ignore her past — or her continued unwillingness to accept responsibility for ruining five innocent men’s lives,” she wrote. “I cannot support this decision.”
Would it be different had Fairstein apologized? Should it matter? Can she ever get beyond her conduct in the Central Park Five case? Much as her books have made her rich, her actions in that one case made her notorious, so much so that whatever success she enjoys as a writer will never undo the taint of her putting five kids in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. She can win a prize for a best-selling book, but not for being a person to whom anyone, mystery writers inclusive, should look up to and emulate.